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A little off the top

Using a sabre to pop a cork adds thrills to well-chilled sparkling wine

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Weddings, graduations, your team winning the Stanley Cup -- there's plenty to celebrate this time of the year, and no better drink to do it with than sparkling wine. Be it a killer-value Spanish Cava, a playful Prosecco or an elegant bottle of French Champagne, nothing gets people raising their glass for a celebratory toast like bubbly.

While I had seen people do it, I had never sabred a bottle of bubbly myself. I visited Sylvia Jansen, sommelier and wine educator at Banville & Jones, to learn about the art of sabreing bubbly -- lopping the top of the bottle off with a sword (or kitchen knife if you don't have a sword lying around).

Jansen, an avid fan of Champagne and other sparkling wines, is an expert in the art of sabrage -- she says she opens about four out of 10 bottles of bubbly at home using the beautiful Champagne sabre she picked up in Italy. (A couple private wine stores in Winnipeg sell sabres, but they're not cheap.) "The sword itself is all part of the ceremony," notes Jansen.

The origins of sabreing bubbly (or sabrage) are unclear, with numerous theories as to where it began. Most originate in the 19th century and involve soldiers on horseback celebrating victories on the battlefield.

"One of the stories is that Napoleon's officers started it, and it was all about showing off, sitting on horseback, deciding they're going to have a bottle of Champagne and lopping off the top (of the bottle)," says Jansen, adding there are similar stories surrounding the Russian army as well.

"There's another story still about (French Champagne matriarch) Veuve Clicquot, in the grand tradition of free samples, offering her wine to officers -- either Russian or French -- in order to keep her household and her company safe."

There are a number of factors that play into a successful sabreing experience.

"The physics of sabrage are pretty straightforward, but it's a little bit finicky," says Jansen. Before you get started, make sure your bubbly is extremely cold -- this will constrict the explosive nature of the carbonation, among other things.

So don't just go grabbing a kitchen knife and attacking your bubbly Game of Thrones style -- if you want to sabre your sparkling wine, carefully follow the steps Jansen walked me through to avoid disaster (see YouTube for many "epic fails").

For step-by-step instructions I got from Sylvia on sabreing bubbly, check out the video up top.

And, to be clear: Most who sabre bubbly have sommelier training and/or plenty of experience. Neither Jansen nor I advocate sabreing sparkling wine without the guidance of a trained professional. Twitter: @bensigurdson

BERTHA LOUNGE 2010 CAVA BRUT NATURE (Cava, Spain -- around $25, Banville & Jones)

Pale straw in colour, the Bertha Lounge is from a relatively small Spanish producer and comes in a modern-looking blue bottle that's quite slick. Mineral, lime rind, green apple skin and light toasty notes show quite nicely on the nose. It's a lean, racy, light-bodied Cava that delivers big citrus flavours on the palate, with bright bubbles and acidity that makes for a mouth-watering, vibrant bubbly. This was the wine I got to saber. 91/100

BOUVET LADUBAY BRUT DE BLANC (Saumur, France -- $14.22, Liquor Marts and beyond)

This bubbly originates in the Saumur region of France. A Chenin Blanc-Chardonnay blend, there's plenty of honey, toasted nuts, pear and chalky aromas in this Loire Valley bubbly. Made in the traditional method used in the Champagne region of France, it's leaner on the palate than the nose might suggest -- it's a bone-dry, vibrant and focused bubbly, with lemon-lime, mineral, green apple and an almost-herbal note pervading. 87/100

CHÂTEAU DES CHARMES NV SPARKLING WINE (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. -- $23.92, Liquor Marts and beyond)

A classic Chardonnay-Pinot Noir blend made using the traditional Champagne method as well, the Château des Charmes shows classic red apple, lemon and bread dough aromas as well as a decidedly toasty note. It's a crisp, dry, light-bodied bubbly that has a hint of tartness on the palate, with up-front green apple and lemon flavours and that toasty/doughy note in the background. There's great balance to this bubbly, which drinks much like an entry-level French Champagne. 90/100

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 22, 2013 D14


Updated on Saturday, June 22, 2013 at 4:08 PM CDT: corrects typo.

4:18 PM: Corrected photo credits

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