This article appeared in the December 2007 edition of Connections Magazine (Ireland)
So what do you get for the wine lover who has everything? Bottles of wine can be tricky unless you really understand the receiver’s preferences very well. And even then, the element of surprise – the hallmark of any good gift – ups the difficulty ante considerably. How about accessories then? Not a bad choice, but this person probably already has every corkscrew, glass, decanter and gizmo ever invented. What to do? Let’s pay a visit to the outer fringes of the wine accessories world – a sometimes dangerous place where bottle tops are cut off, wine is poured from the ceiling and the glasses hold entire bottles – to find our perfect gift.
“Champagne! In victory, one deserves it; in defeat one needs it.”
Is chivalry not dead? Sabrage
, the act of opening a Champagne bottle with a saber, dates back to Napoleonic times in France. Yes, the French actually have word for cutting off the top of a Champagne bottle with a sword. Apparently cavalry officers employed this practice to impress young ladies and save time as well.
Although cavalry swords were the original tool of choice, a sharp blade is not necessary as the blunt side of the blade is actually used. The whole process is pretty straightforward. First, remove the foil, capsule and muselet (wire cage). Holding the bottle with the cork facing away from you (and other people, windows, etc) firmly slide the blunt edge of the saber blade quickly along the neck of the bottle towards and through the annulus, or glass lip at the top of the bottle. The cork and annulus should come off surprisingly easily due to force of the blow and pressure of the wine in the bottle. The pressure of the bottle also insures that no tiny fragments of glass get into the bottle.
When I first tried this, I was a little timid with my saber action and nothing happened. For my second blow, I channeled Colonel Blimp and used appropriate force causing the cork and top of bottle to fly about 10 feet in front of me. It can be a little nerve racking but surprisingly easy if you give it a good whack.
A wide range of bona fide Champagne sabers are made by craftsmen in Laguiole. The thing that distinguishes a Champagne saber from a regular saber is that both sides are blunt, however, it still makes a formidable gift for modern day swashbucklers.
Another way to bypass the corkscrew altogether but in an equally dangerous way is with port tongs. While the practice of sabrage is gallant, the use of port tongs looks downright Medieval in comparison. However, it’s very practical as the corks in very old bottles of wine and especially port tend to be extremely difficult to remove. Not only are they softened by years of contact with the wine, but the sugars and extract in the port act as a glue, making it almost impossible to remove. Imagine the cork as a plug made of an old Christmas pudding and you begin to get the nature of the problem. Woe are those who have experienced the anti climax of decanting a fine old bottle of port through an opening in a pulverized cork.
Enter the port tong. Again, we’re taking off the top of the bottle but this time by the effects of searing heat instead of chivalrous force. Personally these things frighten me, so let’s just get through this. First take the tongs – which would look at home in Torquemada’s or really any Inquisitor’s hands – and heat the ends in your fireplace until they glow. That unused kitchen blowtorch you bought for crème brulles can also work in a pinch and can save the expense of installing a fireplace. Did I mention that this is a truly dangerous task?
Take a deep breath, remove the glowing tongs from the fire and clamp around the neck of the bottle under the cork. After a minute or two, carefully unclamp the tongs and set them on a flameproof surface. Wrap a cloth soaked in cold water around the heated part of the neck and you should hear a sharp musical snap which is a result of the break. Carefully remove the top with the cloth making sure no glass chards go into the bottle.
Since the break is clean, the odds of any glass going back in the bottle are very slight. Anyway, the old bottle should be carefully decanted to remove the crust or sediment as well as any errant shards. Yes, we don’t want any internal bleeding so please use caution.
Port tongs are the perfect gift for port lovers, fans of old vintages and hobbyists ready to go Medieval on a bottle. To get an idea of just how unique a gift they are, Wineware.co.uk, the UK’s largest online stockist of wine accessories and one of the only places to buy port tongs in the British Isles sold just 45 of them in 2006, making them a truly one in a million present.
Spot the Venenciador
If you’ve ever been to Jerez, you may have seen sherry poured using a venencia, a thin cup on a long stick. In most parts of the world, a glass pipette also called a “thief” is used to take barrel samples but in Sherry country, the more flamboyant venencia is used. With the flair of a Flamenco dancer (another local specialty) the vencencia is thrust into a hole in the barrel, piercing the layer of yeast or flor and taking a sample of wine to be poured from above the head of the venenciador. It’s pretty spectacular especially given that sherry glasses are very small targets.
Fortunately the only danger here is spillage, which of course can be a fairly grievous offense if we’re talking about old sherry. Despite numerous practice sessions with water, my venencia wisely remains a conversation piece.
Huge Titanium Glasses
Perhaps the safest and easiest to obtain extreme gift listed here are the giant Schott Zweisel Diva Large Bordeaux glasses. These are the giant stadium speakers of the wine world that will amplify pretty much any aroma as high as it will go. Balloons like these have been around a long time but now they’re made of a high tech titanium crystal that makes them fairly durable as well. They look as if a light sneeze would shatter them but I’ve actually knocked over a whole row of them domino-style and to my astonishment, not one broke.
The only downside is that they hold more than an entire bottle of wine so that pouring less than 8 ounces per glass will make you look like a stinge. And then there are those guests that will astound you by pouring a whole bottle of one of your best wines into their glass. Fill it to the brim, dude!
Whatever gift you choose (or don’t choose) have a safe and happy holidays and don’t forget to bring out the good stuff.
Where to Buy:
Champagne Sabers: Wine Ultra
(USA) Wine Ware
Port Tongs: PortWine.com
(USA and Canada) Wine Ware
Schott Zwiesel glasses: Wine Stuff
(USA) Wine Ware
Venencias are a rarer specialty and will need to be ordered from Spain. They’re available at the Tio Pepe shop in Jerez. Send an email to email@example.com and mention that you would like to order a Grande Venencia for €18.
Champagnes to Saber and/Savor
Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé
This beautiful wine is strangely enough, salmon coloured and enjoys near-cult status among rosé champagne fans. Medium bodied and lightly fruity with subtle notes of strawberry, raspberry and citrus, it has a wonderfully fine bubbles and a very long mineral-laced finish. Its price has skyrocketed in recent years due to high demand but still worth the splurge. $78
Pierre Gimonnet & Fils 1er Cru 'Cuis' NV
It’s hard to beat the quality of Gimonnet for the price. This Champagne completely blows away all of the entry-level grand marques Champagnes – Moët, Veuve Clicquot, Taittinger, Mumm, etc – for less money. The blend is predominantly from the 2004 vintage and has slightly grassy notes in addition to its elegant yet full bodied fruitiness. Excellent. $44
Ports to Tong:
A great producer and one of the greatest port vintages of all time, this wine is a serious holiday treat. Full bodied with chocolate, vanilla black cherries and Christmas pudding, it can easily age another decade or two and as it’s just starting to turn tawny coloured. And truth be told, the cork could be taken out easily with a regular corkscrew. Very good but expensive. $245
Grahams 20 Year Old Tawny Port
Tonging is not necessary on this port as tawnies are aged in cask and bottled ready to drink with a replaceable stopper instead of a regular cork. 20 years indicates the average age of the wine blended so there is still some fruity freshness alongside the spicy, woody richness of this delicious port. $77
Sherries that you won’t want to spill:
González Byass Del Duque Amontillado VORS
This is the great 30 year old Amontillado that all others are judged by. It’s completely dry with a full savoury, nutty, toffee richness, elegance and an incredibly long finish. Amazing stuff and perhaps the single greatest bargain in the fine wine world. $29 (half bottle)
Valdespino Coliseo Amontillado VORS
This great 30 year old Amontillado has an almost unbelievable concentration. It’s like the Del Duque taken to the 10th degree – extremely fragrant rich and almost coffee coloured, an open bottle alone will fill the room with its aroma. Some find it completely over the top but there’s no denying its uniqueness or excellence. A once in a lifetime experience. $420
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