Q: Is it safe to drink from a sabered bottle of Champagne? Won’t tiny pieces of glass get into the wine?—Jeannette, Arlington, Va.
A: Sabering a bottle of sparkling wine, also known as sabrage, involves using a dull saber, or any saber-like object, to swiftly apply pressure to the neck of the bottle along one of the vertical seams. The buildup of internal pressure at the bottle’s weakest point sends the top part flying, cork and all. While sabrage makes for a satisfying and downright fun touch of drama, the practice also makes many people wonder: Is it safe?
Rhett Allain, associate professor of physics at Southeastern Louisiana University, is skeptical: “In short, I would say, ‘Oh, don’t do that stuff.’” Because glass is an amorphous solid, “there is at least a small chance of tiny glass shards” forming during sabrage. “Yes, it’s very possible that it looks like a smooth cut—but it’s also possible that there are many tiny fractures that produce those little shards. Shards are bad.”
Gérard Liger-Belair, a professor at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne who specializes in Champagne effervescence, agrees that the formation of small glass shards is possible, though unlikely. “Normally the cut of the glass is very clear, but it is indeed difficult to absolutely guarantee that no microscopic piece of glass could have fallen into the bottle, and could therefore end up in a flute.” Liger-Belair points out, however, that if a small piece of glass did fall to the bottom of a flute, it would produce conspicuous bubbles, making it easy to detect and remove.
What if one of those tiny pieces of glass accidentally ends up going down with a swig of bubbly? According to Dr. Irene Sonu, clinical associate professor of gastroenterology and hepatology at Stanford Health Care, saber-savvy imbibers likely don’t need to worry. Though she cautions that there’s very little literature on the safety of swallowing small glass particles, she told Wine Spectator that infrequent ingestion of small amounts of glass is “highly unlikely” to injure the gastrointestinal tract. Continuous exposure or consuming large amounts of glass, however, certainly can cause serious problems. But the tiny amounts that are theoretically possible from sabering are likely to go unnoticed.
Wine Spectator senior editor and lead taster on Champagne Alison Napjus says she loves to saber. She does it every week or two and has never had any glass issues. “If any pieces of microscopic glass got into my bubbles after sabering, I never noticed. As far as I have ever been able to tell, the pressure in the bottle does its job and no glass gets in the wine.”
If you decide to give sabering a shot, there are a few things you should keep in mind. Holly Donnelly, proprietor of Off the Vine wine shop in Grapevine, Texas, teaches sabering at regular sparkling wine tastings; she estimates she’s taught well over 3,000 people. She told Wine Spectator that she’s never had an issue with glass getting into the wine. Since “everything is blowing up and away from the bottle itself,” even if glass shards were formed, they’d be extremely unlikely to get into the bottle.
Donnelly stresses that it’s essential for the bottle to be cold, between 40 and 45 degrees, and that “follow-through is key.” Since “people get nervous because [they’re holding] a big knife,” she encourages sabering novices to take a couple of practice swipes along the seam of the bottle to build confidence before going for vinous gold. Like any good sabering teacher, she also emphasizes that the blade needn't actually be sharp—any flat metal object, even a spoon, will do. “You can use the biggest knife in your house—just use the back of the blade so you don’t ruin your cutlery,” and be careful not to cut yourself with the sharp edge.
Jonathan Feiler, group wine director at Ocean House Management, has also taught many people to saber and sabers often. Like Napjus and Donnelly, he’s never found glass in the wine, though he does encourage people to use higher quality sparkling wine, like Champagne or Cava, for more evenly blown glass that’s less likely to shatter. His advice is to run the edge of the saber along the bottle “with the force of chipping a golf ball.” He also quips that “we always start the class with the sabering … before [people] start drinking!”
Feiler’s tip highlights the more serious concern with sabrage: accidentally hitting someone, or something, around you with a flying projectile. Feiler cautions never to point the bottle in the direction of anyone (“at least anyone you like!”) or anything fragile. Also watch out for the lip, which may look like a pretty piece of sea glass, but is razor-sharp. However you choose to open your next bottle of bubbly, as always, talk to your doctor about incorporating wine into a healthy, glass-free lifestyle.—Kenny Martin