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Wölffer Estate’s winemaker Roman Roth demonstrating the art of sabering a bottle of Champagne. (Credit: Louisa Hargrave)
Wölffer Estate’s winemaker Roman Roth demonstrating the art of sabering a bottle of Champagne. (Credit: Louisa Hargrave)

Laughter filled billionaire Dingxiang Loeng’s suite at the glamorous Hong Kong Hotel Shangri-La as Loeng popped open a bottle of champagne in celebration of his 50th birthday on Aug. 2.

His 217 guests, among them most of Hong Kong’s business and political elite, cheered as the cork flew out of the bottle and laughed even harder when it bonked the billionaire in the temple. Loeng was known for his eccentric and reckless behavior; he’d been arrested over 30 times for his drunken escapades, yet none expected his partying life would end, as it did, with a cerebral hemorrhage caused by the impact of that cork.

Turns out, the story is a hoax from notorious satire website World News Daily Report, but it does raise several legitimate concerns surrounding proper cork popping procedure. A bottle of bubbly has 90 pounds pressure — more than a car tire. The cork may emerge at 50 miles per hour. So don’t bend over the cork as you open it and don’t point it at a wall, ceiling or friend. Death by cork is rare, but eye injuries are common.

For safety’s sake, the proper way to open a bottle of bubbly is as follows:

• Make sure the bottle is cold. CO2 bubbles dissolve best at cold temperatures.

• Don’t shake the bottle (unless you are at a sporting event and want to be drenched in champagne).

• Keep the bottle tilted away from yourself and others while opening it.

• Cover the cork with the palm of your hand while removing the wire hood.

• Put a cloth napkin over the cork and release the cork slowly by grasping it firmly while turning the bottle with your other hand. Keep pressure on the cork as you feel it emerge from the bottle. It should make a sweet little fffffft sound.

Champagne corks aren’t the only wine closures to cause sorrow, if not death or injury. Dry or defective corks in bottles of still wine often split while you are using a corkscrew to pull them out. When this happens, you can test your nerves with careful extraction, but you must be equipped with a proper tool. I like to use a waiter’s corkscrew with a Teflon-coated screw and double lever. Those winged corkscrews with a straight bore surrounded by a chromed spiral will rip even a good cork apart.

If your cork has split, but not disintegrated, place the pointed end of your corkscrew into the middle of the remaining cork, at a slight angle if necessary. Tenderly work the screw as far into the cork as you dare, then gingerly apply pressure to it with the first level of your lever. Never yank the cork. If you succeed in loosening it, bring it up part way, then finish with the longer part of the lever. Clean out crumbled cork bits with a napkin or paper towel.

Sometimes, if a cork is too fragile or the bottle has a composite (manufactured) cork that won’t budge, I use an “Ah-So,” a double-pronged cork remover that I always travel with because the TSA won’t confiscate it. Using an Ah-So requires practice. You must first engage the longer prong between the bottle and the cork, then seesaw both prongs down the sides. Get the opener all the way down, then turn it 360 degrees before pulling, while turning, the cork.

See why I like screw caps?

Now that you’ve got your safety lesson of the day down, let me tell you how Wölffer Estate’s winemaker Roman Roth opens a bottle of bubbly — with a saber! Here’s how he describes his technique:

• Point the bottle away from people.

• Remove all foil from the bottle. (Some people even remove the wire hood.)

• Find the seam that goes up the side of the bottle.

• Slide the saber along the seam from the bottom of the bottle up to the neck along the seam and then swiftly hit the lip of the neck, which will decapitate the bottle. Most importantly, never hit the bottle with the saber sideways!

• Pour and start drinking!

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.

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