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Sabrage: Almost as Impressive as a Keg Stand

Beer pong. Flip cup. Quarters. For beer guzzlers, there's no shortage of ways to make drinking fun. Even if college is solidly in the rearview mirror, most of us can bank on one friend -- or several -- attempting to shotgun a beer at some point every summer.

Wine is more sophisticated. Oenophiles scoff at cans and red Solo cups and pooh-pooh drinking games -- or at least that's what we pretend.

But for wine enthusiasts, there's one party trick that's almost as impressive as a keg stand. It's flamboyant yet distinguished, ostentatious yet noble. Sabrage, the ceremonial art opening Champagne with a sword, is always a hit. And it's worth learning before your next barbecue.

The tradition traces its roots to the Napoleonic Wars. As Napoleon Bonaparte swept through Europe in the years following the French Revolution of 1789, he relied on his light cavalry -- the Hussars -- to lead the charge. For Bonaparte's fans and foes alike, the Hussars were seen as a symbol of the empire's early invincibility. The horse-mounted troops were always armed with brass-hilted sabers, and historians credit them with inventing sabrage.

The precise details, though, are murky.

Some suggest that as these young cavalrymen rode off to battle, townspeople would toss them Champagne for the journey. Others suggest that when the Hussars returned home, inevitably victorious, townspeople would celebrate by offering bottles of Champagne.

Others trace the tradition to the vineyards of Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, better known as Veuve Clicquot. After Ponsardin's husband died in 1805, Napoleon’s soldiers would frequent the young widow's estate, eager to impress her. Legend has it that Clicquot would welcome the men and hand out Champagne as they left for battle.

Opening a foil-wrapped cage and pulling out a cork while mounted on a horse is difficult, obviously, so the Hussars used their swords to pop open their wine.

Take your pick of which story to believe -- and share it with your friends the next time you see an easy opportunity to behead a bottle of bubbly. Most sparkling wines will do, but make sure the bottle is thick with prominent seams. Avoid cheap, screw-top sparklers like Andre.

To begin, acquire a saber. While a brass-hilted sword looks impressive, you don't actually need one; any sturdy instrument will do. Most performers simply use the back of a chef's knife.

Next, remove all the foil and paper around the neck of the bottle, but leave on the cage.

You'll want the Champagne to be ice cold, as the low temperature will help calm the bubbles, ensuring you don’t lose much wine.

Now, the fun begins. Locate one of the bottle's two vertical seams and remove the wire cage. Hold the bottle at a 45-degree angle, pointed away from people, pets, and anything breakable. With confidence, run your blade flat along the seam, striking the lip of the neck ring. So long as you follow through, the top should come right off.

Finally, bask in the glow of your success.

Sabrage carries some danger, of course. While most drinking games only threaten the liver, using a sword to dramatically open a bottle of Champagne puts, well, virtually everyone within a 30-foot circumference at risk. And there's nothing fun about broken glass. Sabering takes a bit of practice, but once mastered, it's quite simple. So get to it.

David White is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com, which was named "Best Overall Wine Blog" at the 2013 Wine Blog Awards. His columns are housed at Grape Collective.



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