Want to make a splash on New Year’s Eve? Saber a bottle of bubbly. Nothing rings in a new year quite like Champagne, loud cheers, and the suggestion of a little danger.
We asked Johnny Slamon, sommelier at Alexander’s Steakhouse in San Francisco, to show us how to saber a Champagne bottle like a pro (and, of course, safely). Johnny worked at the Fifth Floor restaurant for five years before joining the opening team of Alexander’s, where he’s built what he calls an “aggressive” Champagne program.
“It’s probably a lot more than we need,” he laughs. “Certainly not as much as I need, but probably more than the restaurant needs as an entity.”
How to saber a Champagne bottle in 5 easy steps:
- Safety first. Make sure your bottle is cold and you’re not pointing it towards anyone or anything breakable. Give yourself 10 to 15 feet of clearance — corks can fly!
- Remove the foil and cage entirely. Removing the foil exposes the neck of the bottle, so there’s nothing in between the blade and the glass. That gives you a nice, clean runway for the blade. Once the cork is exposed, again, treat it like a live weapon — point it only at big, open spaces.
- Look for the seams. The weakest point of the bottle — where it’s going to break — is where the glass seams are fused together, forming a tiny cross. Position that point front and center and aim for it when readying your blade.
- Use the dull end. Many people mistakenly use the sharp end of the blade, but the dull end is more effective for catching the lip of the bottle. You want a flat surface to impact so you can take advantage of the force and break the sealed glass.
- Swing through. Go for it! The actual motion is just one, long, continuous swing, which Johnny compares to a golf swing. “You’ve got to swing all the way through for the best results,” he says.
We asked Johnny to share some more of his favorite tips and insights into the world of Champagne. Here’s his take on go-to bottles, pairings, New Year’s Eve service and more.
On favorite styles & houses:
“I like really balanced styles of Champagne. Especially with the food we do here, the best styles tend to be wines that have a lot of weight and texture and power behind them, but still have that beautiful, lingering minerality and brightness of acidity.”
His picks for Alexander’s Steakhouse are Bollinger, Louis Roederer, Krug, and Charles Heidsieck. He looks for houses with Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier influence, and oak aging or lees aging to give the wines weight and power while still maintaining balance.
“Champagne goes with everything,” Johnny emphasizes. “There is a Champagne for every season, and every season is great for Champagne. I think Champagne is under-utilized with food in general. You can’t go wrong.”
A few of his favorite pairings:
- Triple-creme cheeses and Champagnes with extensive lees aging. “The longer the contact with the yeast, the more of that cheesy flavor profile you get. I love that with cheese — it kind of matches.”
- Oysters and raw fish with Blanc de Blanc styles. Leaner, brighter Champagnes, like white varietal Champagnes, tend to be a cleaner style that complements lean dishes.
- Ribeye with Blanc de Noir styles. Think of a big, fatty cut of steak with a acidic chimichurri sauce, Johnny says: Champagne can provide the same contrast. “You’re using that acidity to cut through all the richness,” he says. Since a weighty Champagne still has around 13% alcohol, it has enough body to stand up to the meat. Look for a vintage Champagne, in which some of the effervescence has mellowed.
Avoid Champagne flutes. Johnny prefers a glass with a wider bowl, so you can truly experience the flavors and aromatics of the wine.
Serve at cellar temperature. Since Champagne is a naturally sparkling wine, it’s going to have more character as it warms up. “I don’t like my Champagne as cold as I think a lot of other people do.”
Serve smaller pours. Smaller pours preserve the effervescence of Champagne, Johnny says. Pouring too heavily or too aggressively will cause you to lose carbonation, and wines will seem flat instead of sharp and bright.
Johnny points to the increasing supply and popularity of grower Champagne as one of the biggest, most exciting industry trends. Family parcels of grapes are often passed down through generations, and now younger generations are starting to make wine from their own family plots instead of selling off the grapes to bigger houses.
Plus, he says, “Grower Champagne is still very fairly priced on the market compared to a lot of what’s out there.”
On New Year’s Eve service:
On New Year’s Eve, Johnny pours Champagne out of six-liter bottles. “I do it every single year, and every year I think it’s going to be such a great idea,” he says. “Then 10 minutes into it I think, why do I keep doing this? It’s so heavy!”
Still, it’s festive and fun, and he says people get a kick out of seeing a huge bottle heading for their table. Many regulars pop in to Alexander’s on New Year’s Eve, so it feels a lot like celebrating with friends.
“I get to play with my giant bottle of Champagne and not do any real work — it’s awesome!” he laughs. “It’s the greatest scam that I’ve built in this restaurant.”
Many thanks to Johnny, Bollinger Champagne, and the team at Alexander’s Steakhouse for their help with this feature. Happy New Year!
Photo Credit: Alex Loscher