The Oxford English Dictionary
Sabrage (sá-brãdz). The act of opening a bottle, usually champagne, with a sabre.
Sabreur (sá-brõr). 1845 (Fr). One who fights with a sabre; usually applied to a cavalry soldier distinguished rather for bravery than for skill at war.
The noble Art of Sabrage
I am often asked, "What is Sabrage and what is it all about?" The title of our international champagne order doesn't give anything away or answer these questions. Certainly, the literal translation of La Confrérie du Sabre d'Or sounds rather sinister as The Brotherhood of The Golden Sabre! In truth, French confrères are what we might call Orders, at the posh end, or Societies generally. So we are a society for the enjoyment of champagne with the added highly unusual way of opening the bottle. Once you have sabraged your first bottle, there is no turning back. The posh bit comes with your advancement through the order by sabraging gradually larger format bottles until, as a grandee, you sabrage a methusalem and are made a Grand Commandeur.
The fun and, sometimes the mishaps, start with the novice sabrage. The candidate is rewarded for the historic effort by being made a Sabreur of the Confrérie. But....
Après l'effort, le réconfort!
Indeed the vital refreshment after this action is rewarded with other sabreurs opening bottles and soon the party is in full swing and swim! This first sabrage is essential for the novice to experience; it brings confidence so that the next sabrage - to become a Chevalier-Sabreur, is carried out with panache and savoir-faire, or at least more so than the first time.
Chip and Pin
The mishaps are very infrequent. A popular one is the 'Ring Bounce'. This happens when the sabreur fails to follow through the action and the sabre skims off the annulus at the top of the bottle underneath the cork. Usually some glass is chipped away and the bottle has to be turned slightly, so that the sabreur can have another go at sabraging the bottle. Sometimes after several chippings and no popping, the cork has worked its way loose enough to fly away without the sabre dislodging it. We call this 'Premature Ejaculation Champenois.'
Another favourite mishap seems to be special to male sabreurs. This is the 'Ultimate Flop'. In spite of advising the novice that the sliding of the sabre along the glass should be elegant, firm and yet gentle because the bottle is cold and under pressure, he applies considerable testosterone to his sabrage. This is perhaps an attempt to demonstrate his masculinity to the audience or he simply doesn't believe how easy it is and, practically, effortless; thus he applies more force than necessary and, what is bad news, he takes the sabre off the bottle and instead of sliding upwards towards the glass annulus he bangs the sabre down on the glass with a terrible result. The cold brittle bottle with precious champagne inside explodes, sending chunks of glass everywhere and showers the Maître-Sabreur and the novice, deluges the area and, what is very sad, leaves us with no champagne to drink.
In nearly 5,000 sabrages I have known a handful of bottles to collapse under pressure when it has not been due to the sabreur's action. This often happens with clear glass, such as used in Rosé champagne. Green glass seems to be sturdier. We now actually discourage sabrage of clear glass bottles. Louis Roederer Cristal is the exception, due to the manufacture of that bottle. My own sabrages of pink in magnums have had a mixed result. Photographed below with a successful one in Paris. But at The Boar's Head at Ardington I sustained a few glass cuts to my hands. I now open the pink champagne that is in clear glass bottles the conventional way.
Not one for Jonny Wilkinson
I like to recall one mishap that I could never have allowed for, which I call the 'Great Bottle Drop'. It is reminiscent of the Rugby drop-kick, only the sabreur doesn't convert the bottle over the bar! A lady, who shall remain nameless, with considerable enthusiasm parked her child, Rupert, to one side of the Sabrage Firing Line, then grasped the sabre and bottle. Before her tutor, the maître-sabreur, could speak, she dropped the bottle on the floor and as the foil and cage had been removed in readiness for her sabrage, there was nothing to keep the cork inside. The angle of the bottle turned to her right in its descent and the cork flew off, hitting little Rupert on his nose. Since the bottle landed on the floor with a thud, the champagne was shaken up with the vigour of a Formula One grand prix winner, resulting in the child being completely baptised in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
However, I hasten to repeat that in nearly 5,000 sabrages, these accidents are rare. We carry out a Risk Assessment. An official one was done for the Wine Show in London. It is between Zero and Level One. The only danger is really if you are in the firing line, other than some liquid on the floor that might cause one to slip. Both of these potential snags are easily overcome. Your maître-sabreur will ensure that there is an angle of 30° on either side of the firer and that the bottle is aimed at a dead spot with no one in the line of fire. A good tip to avoid spillage; the bottle should be at 3° Celsius and held at around 30-45° from horizontal, so that the cork flies upwards and away. When the cork flies, do not adjust the bottle angle or otherwise this encourages the champagne to react from its cold slumber and effervesce all over your carpet. Hold it steady for that brief moment after sabrage.
As you progress in your (daily) task of sabraging champagne, add more elegance by lifting the bottle higher and using the sabre's blade at about 8 inches from the point, and it is wrist action - not a whole sweep of the arm. After a couple of dozen bottles you will be superb. Progress to magnums and then the jeroboam at Christmas (or Easter, or Pancake day, or whenever, come to think of it).
The popularity of champagne and champagne related events continue unabated. We in the Confrérie du Sabre d'Or have made a great contribution by adding fun to the enjoyment of champagne, as well as making it the drink for any occasion. Sabrage is a great way to liven up any proceedings or to close a deal. It still is one of the best ways of having fun, whilst fully clothed.
- Take a chilled bottle of champagne, not ice cold but suitable for drinking. The ideal temperature is around 37°F or 3°C
- Carefully remove the wire around the cork. If the champagne has been properly chilled, the cork will remain in the bottle.
- Find one of the two seams along the side of the bottle. At the same time, you can remove the foil which will impede the sliding movement of the sabre. When you are an experienced sabreur, this will not be necessary.
- With your arm extended, hold the bottle firmly by placing the thumb inside the punt at the base of the
- bottle. Make sure the neck is pointing up - around 30° from horizontal. Make sure no one is in your line of fire.
- Calmly lay the sabre flat along the seam of the bottle with the sharp
- edge ready to slide firmly against the annulus at the top.
- Your firm sliding of the sabre against this ring is aided by the internal pressure of the bottle, so that the cork flies dramatically away. This leaves a neat cut on the neck of the bottle and the champagne is ready to be enjoyed.
Sometimes after several chippings and no popping, the cork has worked its way loose enough to fly away without the sabre dislodging it. We call this 'Premature Ejaculation Champenois'
After a career in the military Julian White joined the wine trade and is an agent for a number of wine châteaux and domaines in France. He received his appointment as British Ambassador for the Confrérie du Sabre d'Or in 1999 in Paris and was made a Chevalier-Sabreur. He started the British Chapter of this organisation and held the first Gala event in London. Julian, who is now a Commandeur de la Confrérie, is one of 20 ambassadors of the Order around the world.