Champagne, like all great wine, deserves to be opened with special care and attention. The uncorking of the bottle is part of the ritual of serving Champagne as a celebration wine, enjoyed as much by the Master of Ceremonies as his guests.
This is not to say that Champagne etiquette always prevails. Champagne corks have been popping for more than 250 years and will continue to pop for as long as people keep drinking Champagne. The popping of a Champagne cork is like an explosion of joy. It is the bang that gets every party started, the sound of success and victory celebrations, as eloquently explosive as a 21-gun salute.
The proper way to open a Champagne bottle however is as quietly and unobtrusively as possible. Popping the cork in public (at formal functions, in restaurants, etc) is now considered bad manners by Champagne aficionados, and for good reason. First, it triggers a sudden drop in pressure at the expense of those precious bubbles that have been so many years in the making. Second, it causes a loss of wine that can be considerable if the bottle has been shaken or insufficiently chilled. Third, the popping of a Champagne cork is actually quite dangerous. The pressure inside a Champagne bottle can launch a cork at a speed of 13 metres per second — fast enough to hit the eye from a distance of one metre in less than 1/10 of a second. Which is slightly faster than the full 1/10 of a second it takes for the human eye to blink in defence.
Then there is sabrage, or sabering, a practice still used by the military and especially popular in cavalry regiments. There is nothing difficult about sabering Champagne. Hold the bottle by the base in one hand and with the other hand touch the sabre to the shoulder of the bottle, turning the blunt edge towards the cork. Then strike the lip of the bottle sharply, aiming for the glass ring just below the cork (the weakest point in a Champagne bottle). Done properly, sabering severs the neck with a single blow. It ensures a clean break with no splinters, and poses no threat to the Champagne. But onlookers beware if it all goes wrong. Clumsy sabering is also potentially more wasteful than popping the cork (loss of bubbles, pressure and wine), so chilling the bottle properly beforehand is a useful precaution.
The best and safest way to open a bottle of Champagne is to ease the cork out as slowly and gently as possible. This preserves all of the delicious bubbles while also setting exactly the right tone for an unhurried appreciation of the wine itself. You could even say that opening a Champagne bottle is a ritual in its own right, with particular rules that must be scrupulously followed for the sake of all those who enjoy Champagne, old-hands and newcomers alike.
The correct way to open a bottle of Champagne
Make sure you have everything you need to hand before you start: chilled bottle, placed in an ice bucket or a cooler bag; empty glass; clean napkin; and for those recalcitrant corks, a corkscrew and pincers, preferably the kind used by sommeliers or better still, a pair of Champagne cork pliers (sturdier and contoured to fit snugly over the cork).
Before you begin, remember not to shake the bottle (to avoid overflows) and to hold the body of the bottle not the neck (otherwise you will warm up the Champagne). If the bottle has been properly chilled beforehand, all that remains now is to remove the cork. What follows is an explanation of how to open Champagne like a professional — how little or how much of this you apply at home is up to you.
- To open the bottle remove it from the ice bucket (or cooler bag) and wipe it dry with the napkin (which may come in useful again later on — see below). Bottles chilled in an ice bucket should then be turned upside-down once or twice (being careful not to shake them) to ensure an even temperature throughout. If not, the first glass will contain the not-so-cool-wine from the bottleneck — no doubt much to the disappointment of the host who is invited to take that important first sip.
- Present the bottle to your guests so they can admire its elegant labelling from all angles..
- Untwist the metal loop to loosen the wire muzzle then carefully separate the strands that hold the cage in place. On some bottles the loop is directly visible, on others only its outline is visible under the foil wrapping. Sometimes you have to feel for it with your fingers or, as a last resort if the foil is particularly thick, scrape away the foil with your fingernail until you find it. Otherwise removing the foil is considered unnecessary and inelegant. The loop usually unwinds anti-clockwise but check — on some Champagne brands it unwinds in the opposite direction.
- Now, with the cork still partially held in place by the muzzle, give it an almost imperceptible twist to judge its fit. Generally speaking, the tighter the cork, the shorter the time it has spent in the bottle. So you can never rule out the risk that the cork will come flying out of the bottle when you remove the muzzle — as so often happens with the peg-like corks typical of very old bottles.
- For a tight-fitting cork once the strands of the muzzle have been separated, remove it together with its foil cap, using your finger as a hook to pull the loop at the base of the muzzle, meanwhile holding down the cork with your thumb as a precaution. For a loose-fitting cork, leave the wire cage in place until you are ready to release the muzzle, foil cap and cork in one go. In either case, proceed as follows:
- Hold the bottle in one hand at a 30°-45° angle. This will facilitate extraction and prevent the Champagne from overflowing. Be careful to point the bottle away from yourself or any bystanders — you don’t want any accidents. Meanwhile keep the thumb of your other hand on top of the cork, with your forefinger wrapped around the cork itself and the other fingers holding the bottleneck.
- Slowly turn the bottle, if necessary rocking the cork gently with your thumb and forefinger to get it moving. Keep your other three fingers around the bottleneck and wait for that small sigh of escaping gas that tells you the cork has released. If the cork won’t budge, turn the bottle holding it by the base and if that doesn’t work, loosen the cork with a pair of Champagne pliers then remove it by hand.
- Wipe the bottleneck, either with the napkin you used earlier or with the miroir (the surface of the cork that comes into contact with the wine). Keep the bottle at an angle, giving it a slight twist to prevent dripping.
- Pour a taste for the host, filling the glass about one third full to allow a proper appreciation of the Champagne, starting with its temperature. When catering for a crowd, check the wine yourself before serving.
This is the only way to open a bottle of Champagne safely: controlling the cork with your thumb while steadying the bottle with the other fingers. Holding down the cork with the palm of your hand may be popular but it doesn’t work. Nor does turning the cork instead of the bottle — there is less grip, less control and a strong possibility that the cork will break.
You can always loosen the cork with a pair of pliers, then finish the job by hand — as is commonly done when uncorking several bottles. With a really intractable cork, try immersing the bottleneck in hot water for a couple of minutes, keeping your thumb on the cork the whole time. This can also work for broken corks or you can simply use a corkscrew, in which case it’s best to wrap a napkin around the bottleneck just in case it breaks (unlikely but not impossible).