How to Safely Open a Bottle of Bubbly
Last summer, an accident with a Prosecco cork forced cyclist Biniam Girmay to withdraw from the famed Giro d’Italia bicycle race. Biniam is from Eritrea and the first Black African to win a stage of a grand tour cycling race. He beat Mathieu van der Poel in a sprint to the finish line to win the 10th stage. However, soon after finishing the race, things went south when Biniam enthusiastically opened a bottle of Prosecco to celebrate and ended up popping the cork into his left eye.
The cyclist was immediately taken to a local hospital where tests revealed a hemorrhage in his eye. The team doctor recommended he avoid further physical activity. Afterwards, Biniam returned to his team to celebrate the win where he was quoted as saying “When I arrived after the hospital, the bad moment, I enjoyed a bit with my teammates, the staff, everybody. I’m also happy now. I was a bit sad about what happened with the champagne but when I come back to the hotel they were super happy also.”
Turns out that Girmay wasn’t the first to experience the wrath of an errant Prosecco cork on the same tour. The aforementioned van der Poel was struck in the neck by a flying cork after winning the opening stage of the race. However, after the Biniam incident, RCS, the race organizers, decided to alter the Prosecco protocol by handing stage winners open bottles thus avoiding any further incidents or injuries.
Doing stupid or dangerous things with a bottle of sparkling wine probably coincides with the invention of the method used to preserve all the tiny bubbles in the bottle itself. Every year people like our buddy Biniam are injured—even killed—by flying Champagne corks. There’s a good reason why. It’s called the laws of physics.
Bottles of sparkling wine are under considerable pressure—somewhere between 70 and 120 pounds per square inch depending the kind of wine. This is greater than the air pressure in an average car tire. Which means that a sparkling wine cork, when released from the bottle, travels at great speed. According to an article in foodandwine.com, a Champagne cork leaves a bottle at approximately 25 miles per hour.
However, recent studies have shown that the gases around the cork can achieve much greater velocities at nearly twice the speed of sound, approximately 1,524 miles per hour. Not only that, but in certain circumstances, in the microseconds after a bottle of Champagne is uncorked, a condition called “mach disk” can be created—a sort of standing wave often seen with supersonic jet engines. Gerard Ligier-Berlair, a professor of chemical physics at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardeche was quoted saying “the velocity of gases expelled from the bottleneck reaches almost Mach 2, twice the velocity of sound.”
What does it all mean? That a bottle of bubbly is not to be taken lightly, much less trifled with. And while this missive wasn’t intended to be an educational piece on wine service, some safety tips for opening a bottle of sparkling wine are always good idea. To that point, the standards for Champagne service used by the Court of Master Sommeliers includes multiple warnings about safety. Following are some of the key points:
- The proper serving temp for a bottle of sparkling wine is a maximum of 45 degrees. Make sure to chill your bottle thoroughly before opening. If chilling a bottle in the fridge, allow for at least two hours, if not longer. You can use the freezer—but don’t forget the bottle. Yes, we’ve all done it and it’s messy. Reminds me a marching band trip in college. Regrettable.
- If chilling the bottle in an ice bucket, make sure it’s a 50-50 water ice mixture. Otherwise, you’ll be trying to jam the bottle into a bucket of ice.
- Above all, make sure the bottle is thoroughly and evenly chilled. This is important when you go to quick chill a bottle that’s room temperature (or cellar temperature) in an ice bucket with the top 30% of the bottle not submerged. Before opening, make sure the temp of the neck and bottom of the bottle are the same—as in both cold. If not, allow for some more time in the ice bucket.
- When opening, use a napkin or kitchen towel over the top of the bottle to prevent any messy accidents—unless that’s the prime directive of the moment.
- Never take the cage off the bottle before removing the cork. If you insist on doing that, you are in effect holding a live tactical weapon.
- When opening a bottle, never point the bottle at anyone. And for god’s sake, don’t point the bottle at yourself. Just ask Biniam Girmay about it.
- Cut the capsule underneath the cage with a blade of a corkscrew and discard.
- Place a napkin/towel on top and your hand on top of the napkin/towel. Then place your hand on top of the towel/napkin. From there, do NOT take your hand off the bottle until the cork is out.
- Hold the cage and cork firmly—as in a death grip.
- Undo the wire cage by reaching underneath and napkin and twisting the small wire ring six times counter clockwise—all the while keeping your hand on top of the bottle.
- Remove the cork slowly by turning the bottom of the bottle and not the cork.
- When the cork is almost out, very gently push it to the side to let the excess CO2 out of the bottle quietly. Yes, I know the lack of noise thing isn’t fun, but opening a bottle quietly is much cooler than the opposite, which anyone can do. Even a professional cyclist. Ouch.
Opening a bottle of sparkling wine safely isn’t easy. It takes practice. That’s why people are paid to do it in restaurants and beyond. And why any server who wants to be hired in a decent restaurant should be able to demonstrate their ability do it properly and safely.
Finally, I have to mention sabering Champagne which involves taking a large knife or similar, and hacking off the entire top of the bottle to open it. The following is my opinion and not shared by other colleagues. I believe that sabering a bottle is potentially dangerous and beyond stupid. It’s the wine version of chasing parked cars. That’s because she or he wielding the blade is trusting that the structural integrity of the bottle is sound. And 99 out of 100 times it is. But when it isn’t, the bottle explodes and various body parts get sliced up by shards of flying glass. Regardless, sabering Champagne remains popular in some circles. I’ll take a pass.
Enjoyment of sparkling wine and Champagne will probably always include the lure of stupid and dangerous. Darwin warned us about that over 160 years ago. And he was right. But I wonder if he enjoyed a glass of Champagne now and again. One can only hope.