by Tim Gaiser MS
This is part two in a five-part series of articles by Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser, which will appear consecutively here, on Pouring Points. Tim’s SommDay School Workshops are designed for students in the food, beverage, and hospitality industry who are just starting their Sommelier education journey, and ideal for those looking to further improve their service and tasting skills.
Recently, I was sharing dinner with a good friend and fellow Master Sommelier at a bistro in the nation’s heartland. We ordered a bottle of Blanc de Blancs Champagne from an excellent grower-producer. What followed, in terms of our server opening the bottle, was somewhere between comedy and tragedy. While telling us about the evening’s specials, our server blissfully destroyed the capsule on the bottle, took the cage off, and waved the bottle around as if it were a half-gallon of milk. In short, everything that could have been done wrong to open the bottle—was done wrong.
There’s really only one way to do Champagne service correctly, and safety is the most important aspect. Every year people are injured by opening a bottle of sparkling wine or Champagne improperly. Having said that, here are important tips for servers and sommeliers on how to open a bottle of Champagne correctly—and safely.
Safety First! In proper Champagne service, safety is priority one. The average bottle of sparkling wine has over 120 pounds per square inch—more than the average auto tire. That means the following:
- Make sure the bottle you’re opening is thoroughly—and evenly—chilled. When you go to retrieve the bottle feel the neck and the bottom of the bottle. If the neck is warmer than the bottom of the bottle be forewarned lest you momentarily reenact the end of a Formula One race.
- Never point the bottle at someone at the table—or anyone else, for that matter. Always be aware of the direction the bottle is pointed when opening it.
- Never take the cage off the bottle when opening. Along with not pointing the bottle at anyone this is the other epic fail in Champagne service. Taking the cage off a bottle when opening is beyond dangerous. Safe standards mean placing a serviette over the top of the bottle, loosening the cage, and then removing the cage and cork at the SAME time. No exceptions.
- Never take your hand off the top of the bottle when opening. This should be self-explanatory. If the cage is loosened and you take your hand off the top of the bottle even for a moment, the cork/cage could easily come blasting out much to the surprise, consternation, and embarrassment of all concerned. The same goes for switching hands when opening the bottle. Don’t do it—it’s dangerous.
- Cut the capsule under the cage with the blade of your corkscrew. While most bottles of sparkling wine and Champagne have pull-tabs, they rarely work. The more expensive the wine the more useless they are; Dom Perignon is a case in point.
- Use a serviette over the top of the bottle when opening. The serviette will add an extra surface to grip the top of the bottle when opening; it will also catch any wine that may somehow leave the bottle just after the cork is removed.
- Pouring: serve one glass at a time with a maximum of two pours. Going around the table pouring half glasses then making another lap to fill them up is ludicrous—that’s Holiday Inn banquet service.
- Use a still wine grip when pouring. When serving the bottle, hold it as you would a bottle of still wine. You may be tempted to use the “thumb in the punt” grip, but it’s not safe. However, holding the entire bottom of the bottle is acceptable and at times necessary (refilling glasses at a reception).
- No drips! Make sure your serviette is always at the ready to catch any drips.
- Pouring order: the host—the person who ordered the wine—is poured a 1.5-ounce taste of wine for approval. After the host approves, the wine is served in the following order: guest of honor first (they will be seated to the right of the host), followed by lady guests, then gentlemen, with the host being served last regardless of gender. In formal service, one usually has to make two trips around the table to serve the bottle. The exception to that rule is if there are eight or more at the table. In this case, simply make one trip around the table moving clockwise always with the host served last.
Learn more about Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser’s SommDay School Workshops at Napa Valley Wine Academy.