Sabering - A New (Old) Way To Open Champagne

With slow precision Christian de Noüe slides his saber back and forth along the neck of the Veuve Clicquot. The countdown begins. The French champagne has been chilled and still for 48 hours. It has been carefully carried to the spot where Christian will glide his saber along the bottle neck. Then with a swoosh and a final strike of the saber, the bottle loses its top, which flies off cork-intact, and Christian begins pouring champagne for his patrons.

Christian de Noüe is one of a handful of people in the United States who hold a Diplome de Sabreur. He performs this ritual for guests at the Ridgefield restaurant he and his brother own.

"The bottle is what does the work," said the restaurateur as he tilted the sharp raw edge to pour the frothy bubbles. "It has 100 lbs. of pressure."

While the master of sabering modestly says the technique as something anyone can do, it is still quite clear that it takes confidence as well as expertise to have a track record as reputable as his. Christian has performed more than 400 champagne saberings and has had only three or four failures.

"If I didn't hit it square it would splinter," he explained. "You cannot use sparkling wines or California wines. It must be French Champagne because of the bottle... there are two weak points and you must find the seam for it to work."

Christian co-owns Chez Noüe, a country French bistro in Ridgefield's Big Shop Lane, with his brother Jehan deNoüe. It is in the cozy atmosphere of this upscale restaurant that Christian is asked to perform the technique. Anniversaries, birthdays, promotions or just an enthusiasm for fun keep Christian's skills finely honed. Although he realizes many people would enjoy bringing their own special bottle of champagne to the restaurant for a saber cut, Christian says it is just too "iffy" to use anything but what he has. He charges only for the bottle of French champagne ordered and performs the sabering as part of the service.

"One time one of my special customers had a bottle of Dom Pérignon. When I cut the top the champagne erupted and we were only able to save a little of the bottle. This is because the bottle had been rolling around in their car while they were driving here," said Christian.

It is for this reason that Christian likes to control the conditions of his sabering. On another occasion he tried a California sparkling wine with no success because the bottles in the U.S. differ from those in France. More experienced now, the champagne saber master sticks to French Champagnes only.

"The first couple of times I did it, I was getting the feel of the saber," said Christian who has now been performing for nearly a decade. "It is a matter of trial and error."

Christian belongs to the notable Confrèrie du Sabre d'Or which is a brotherhood of sabering in France. This

brotherhood meets yearly in various cathedrals or other atmospheric places to saber corks.

"I believe I'm the only one in Connecticut who does this. Someone stole my thunder and did it on Oprah not too long ago," he added. "But there are probably only a couple of dozen people in the U.S. who do it."

Why does he go to the trouble of sabering the champagne and taking the risk that he might ruin the bottle?

"It's a lot of fun," he said, grinning.

Fun aside, Christian does keep safety in mind and does not recommend that people try it at home.

"There is glass that flies... It is important that it is done safely," he stressed.

Patrons do not have to worry about glass getting into the bottle because the pressure spews any possible splinters away. In fact the champagne pours much as one would expect. The only difference is that the edge which has a razor cut appearance and looks as if it was actually sliced off. The saber doesn't chop at the glass, however. Instead it slides down and strikes the lip of the bottle causing that portion to separate from the neck. And customers needn't worry about splinters spraying into the food either as Christian makes sure the bottle is always directed away. In fact, the bottle only splinters if the sword does not hit it square.

"And, I have very good aim," added Christian.

Christian says there are many theories on how this tradition started in France, but he prefers the colorful tale of Madame Clicquot who was Mistress of the Veuve Clicquot champagne vineyard during Napoleon's time. It seems she enjoyed entertaining soldiers and as they left, the satisfied hostess gave out bottles of champagne. The soldiers galloped off on horseback with bottle in tow. Unable to pop the corks while riding and keeping a hand on the rein, they drew their sabers and with one quick swoop, beheaded the bottle.

As a reminder of the sabering, Christian will print the date of the sabering on the cork from a guest's bottle. It can be taken home as a souvenir or left at the restaurant in a basket on the shelf to be found every time whenever the customer returns to Chez Noüe.

With his engaging smile, Christian is a ready showman when it comes to sabering. It's easy to see why the atmosphere is festive and even easier to see why all of the sudden, everyone at Chez Noüe wants to drink champagne.