It all started in France, like so many wine-related legends. Napoleon and Madame Clicquot have both been credited with its inception – as have defeated Cossacks in Reims. Whether to celebrate or commiserate the fortunes of war, to see off departing troops or anxiously welcome their return, or as a local twist on the traditional manner of paying homage to the tsar, the art of sabrage has its origins somewhere in the war-torn Gallic battlefields of the early 1800s – among its variously plumed cavalry officers.
A cartoon in the gents at The Cavalry and Guards Club, set a century later, shows a languid subaltern of the dragoons informing a stoutly florid infantry major that the purpose of the cavalry lies in “adding tone to the vulgar brawl”. And indeed, one imagines that the sight of an elegant, tight-trousered chap insouciantly knocking the head off a champagne bottle with a sword might enhance any suburban soirée.
These days anyone can sabrage. You don’t even need a grouse moor to join in. There are, however, some important rules that remain sacrosanct. Bottles must be champagne or at least méthode champenoise – that is, have been subject to a secondary fermentation in the bottle in order to ensure the correct pressure inside. They must also be properly cold (there must be condensation on the outside of the bottle) and should be sufficiently expensive as to ensure the quality of the glass. I once sabraged a tepid bottle of indifferent Georgian champansky with near-fatal results.
The pressure in a bottle of champagne is around 100psi, or 7 bar if you prefer – neither means much to me, but they are similar in explosive power to an air rifle, apparently. With this in mind, it’s best to conduct your sabraging outside.
The first step is to get the bottle topless, removing its foil basque and releasing the cork from its cage. Next, one of the two seams along the neck should be located, as if deftly stroking a carotid artery. With thumb firmly wedged in the punt, hold the bottle at an angle of 20-45º – depending on whether you are trying to smash your mother-in-law’s greenhouse or fire over your irksome neighbour’s wall. I think it’s important to gently stroke the seam with your blade a few times, keeping it flat along the neck – like rubbing a horse. This “tickling”, like circling a finger round the damp rim of a wine glass, causes it to vibrate at a high pitch and, although it does not let out the same keening wail, I believe it puts the bottle into a state of increased tension and fragility, prior to your final assault.
With elbow raised but blade flat against the bottle, a single strike along the seam, determined but not savage, to its weakest spot, should then be sufficient to cleanly part the annulus and cork from the neck. It’s important to follow through straight, whipping the arm up just before the elbow locks – much the same action for disembowelling a fleeing Prussian. Like a woodsman chopping logs or, in diminished circumstances, a golfer achieving a great drive, hitting the sweet spot is key – it should feel surprisingly but satisfyingly effortless. An impressed companion will have flutes on hand for you to pour into immediately, any trace fragments of glass having been propelled into the rose bushes by the force of the pressure released.
An official society, founded disappointingly recently in 1986, the Confrérie du Sabre d’Or (www.goldensabre.co.uk), offers instruction and certificates at some fun-looking events. But green is not my colour, so I have never sought membership. I did, however, co-host a Big Sabrage Breakfast on a friend’s roof terrace in Notting Hill a week or so ago, complete with several dozen different bottles of champagne (and their English and Italian cousins) and eight brace of grouse (I lied earlier about a grouse moor not being necessary).
During this event, we observed that English sparkling wines Coates & Seely and Camel Valley (the former especially) and both Cavalleri and Bellavista from Franciacorta (aping the softer mousse of champagne’s now defunct crémant designation) exploded with less vigour than champagne – but were no less refreshing for it. Bollinger, among the grandes marques, was the most propellant and its Grande Année 2004 was a powerful, if slightly youthful, accompaniment to the grouse. Taittinger’s rare single-vineyard cuvée – Les Folies de la Marquetterie – quietly took everyone by surprise as usual, and the vivacious Veuve Clicquot Brut Rosé 2004 just lost out on the pink crown to Dom Ruinart 1998, which, starting to take on those gorgeous cigar and cognac notes peculiar to grand old rosés, was superlative.
Incidentally, in the absence of my sabre (lost at a party in Florence), we used a mid-weight kitchen knife, although I also successfully employed a teaspoon at one stage to prove a point about technique versus strength. As aperitifs, Mumm had earlier just pipped Henriot to best NV Blanc de Blancs in show and there was a fascinating comparison between the grandes cuvées of Gosset and Bellavista – the two most charming wines of the day. La Perle d’Ayala 2002 was steely like the sabre and one of the few wines to cut through both Stinking Bishop and a truffled Gorgonzola, although I’d personally leave it in the cellar for another five years, alongside a slightly rustic 2006 Drappier and bashful 2006 Mumm.
Alongside the Dom Ruinart pink, two other wines stood out in particular, but Aldi’s own-label Veuve Monsigny Brut is worth an honourable mention – having snuck into the party, it by no means disgraced itself in much grander company. First runner-up and a strong recommendation with game birds was Billecart Salmon’s Brut Sous Bois – a barrel-fermented cuvée from the Maison, which is a slight departure from its normal non-vintage styles, being rather more ample and broad-shouldered. Best in show was Charles Heidsieck Brut Millésimé 2000, which was generous and engaging, mature, well fleshed and dabbed with Old Spice, but elegant on its feet and impeccably attired – the roguish uncle at a wedding, probably an ex-Hussar, in need of refreshment after impressing a tipsy bridesmaid on the dance floor and then more so with his sabraging skills…