As with any style of wine, champagne holds long-standing traditions of how-tos, what-don’ts and better-nots of storage, service and drinking. Truly, it can be a bit dizzying trying to sum up and put into practice the range of sources offering advice. But it doesn’t have to be that hard. Yes, there are a few important measures that everyone should take when dallying with champagne, but beyond that, it’s totally acceptable to give personal preference the right-of-way. So let’s get into the whats of the non-negotiables of champagne handling and, more importantly, the whys of their foundations.
Steps to Serving Champagne
Handling & Serving Temperature
Before we get to popping the cork, let’s consider the champagne bottle as a whole. Champagne is under a huge amount of pressure — 6 atmospheres to be exact — so it’s always important, but especially so right before serving, to handle the bottle with care. This, of course, means no shaking, rolling, or heavily jostling the bottle, but it also means taking the time to chill it properly. Chilled too quickly, a champagne might send its cork flying and foam out when opened.
Dialing in a ready-to-drink temperature of champagne and sparkling wine is essential. To some degree, yes, this depends on preference — idiosyncrasy even — but these few foundations of serving temperature will provide a fool-proof jumping off point no matter the situation or the people involved.
Don’t serve champagne too cold.
The ideal temperature range for sparkling wines is 43-50°F. Anything below that will dull aromatics and decrease carbonation. If available, using a separate wine fridge is optimum for controlling temperature. Or you can even jury rig your own wine cooler by setting up a digital thermometer in a reliable mini fridge (clear the beer out first 😉 ).
Limit how long it stays in the fridge.
Three hours should do the trick. If you’re afraid of forgetting to pop the bottle in the fridge day-of and want to ahead of time, try not to leave it in there for more than a few days. A cork is meant to maintain contact with the wine at all times and unless your refrigerator has a special wine shelf, the bottle is probably being stored upright. In this position over an extended period of time, the cork might dry out, become brittle and you run the risk of it falling apart or the wine being exposed to too much oxygen. It’s also possible that too much time in the refrigerator could impart other food or refrigerator-y aromas and flavors on the wine.
In a pinch, use the speed chill method, never the freezer.
All that talk about properly chilling the champagne low and slow, but we’d be remiss not to cover what to do when the champagne pick-up was the last one the errand run and you’re already late for dinner. The main thing is do not use the freezer for champagne. Truthfully, it’s not even the quickest way to cool the bottle. Use the speed chill method:
- Find a bucket, one large enough to handle the champagne bottle submerged without spilling over. For this reason, actual champagne buckets are not the best option for this step.
- With the bucket filled mostly with ice, add just enough water to allow the bottle to shimmy in and be movable.
- If you’re in a serious rush, add a good amount of salt to the ice water solution and constantly spin the bottle from the neck, at a 45 degree angle (preferably resting on the lip of the bucket), for 5-10 minutes and you’re golden.
- If you’re in a medium rush, this same setup minus the ice for 15-20 minutes, with a few minutes here and there swirling the bottle, will chill your champagne.
- Make sure to dry the bottle before opening and serving, and be sure not to have a heavy hand if running a towel over the label as it may start disintegrating depending on the material. Best to dab.
Make sure drinkware is at a neutral temperature.
This means no chilling glasses y’all! It may seem like a utilitarian way to keep your champagne cooler in the glass for longer but the truth is the perlage is dependent upon the glass’s natural surface — one without frost or additional moisture. Not to mention if there is moisture build up in the bowl of the glass, you’re ultimately diluting your champagne.
Also be aware of the glass potentially being too warm, say, if you’ve just hand-washed or unloaded it from the dishwasher.
Mise en Place
Mise en place — the French phrase meaning “everything in its place” — is typically used in the context of a professional culinary or kitchen environment, but it can be easily applied to any place or role that is an extension of it. The phrase bears reminder to have what you need to carry out the task at hand, and to carry it out well. Whether at hanging at home or in a more formal scenario, the very basic mise en place for champagne service will remain the same. In other words, don’t forget these items!
Wine key: for removing the foil on the bottle; if you find yourself without one, any blade will do but take great care if using something extremely sharp or without a guard. You may be wondering why this is necessary given many champagne bottles have pull tabs on the foil. Well, they’re not always reliable, and if they’re not, the foil situation can get sloppy resulting in tiny bits everywhere and a belabored process.
Serviette/towel: for reinforcing the grip of the hand and providing another safety barrier when removing the cork.
Champagne glasses: Does this one need an explanation?
Prepped ice bucket/chiller: this is not necessary unless it’s predetermined that the folks drinking would like a bucket or chiller present; these items need to be prepared ahead of time — the ice bucket, leave the top ⅓ for headroom, fill the remainder with ⅔ ice and ⅓ water, or the chiller cooled in the refrigerator or freezer for at least forty-five minutes or more, depending on the material. In general, it’s not recommended to use an ice bucket or chiller; rather, allow champagne to warm naturally to cellar (55°F) or room temperature. Experiencing it throughout the temperature grades will reveal the nuances of its aromatics and flavors.
How to Properly Open a Bottle of Champagne
- Remove the foil either using the perforated tab or with a blade by making a cut along the bottle of the wire cage. If it tears unevenly or gets messy, just remove the whole foil — from top of cork to base of neck.
- Take the serviette or towel and drape it over the top of the bottle. Place one hand over the towel around the neck (should be edged right against the bottom of the wire), with the thumb on top of the cage. Use the other to unfasten the cage by untwisting the wire — usually about six turns.
- From this point forward, never release your thumb from the top of the cage and absolutely NEVER REMOVE THE CAGE. Its removal can lead to sudden, and dangerous, expulsion of the cork.
- Position the bottle at a 45° angle. With your thumb in place and a firm grip on the cage and cork, use the other hand to rotate the bottle from the bottom. Do not twist the cork. After a few rotations, you’ll begin to feel the cork loosening. Keep applying firm pressure until there’s enough movement of the cork to slightly pull up one of its edges to allow the initial CO2 to escape… quietly. At most you should only hear a little hiss.
- Once the pressure is relieved, you may remove the serviette with the cork and cage. If the champagne begins foaming upon opening, hold the bottle at a 45° angle and it won’t spill over.
There are many old school conventions of pouring and servicing wine that compete for “correctness.” Really though, most of that is formal fluff — stuff for presentation’s sake. These days, even at fine dining establishments, many of those antics are deemed antiquated or unnecessary. So don’t get flustered trying to be white glove perfect. Just be relaxed and abide by these pouring basics.
When pouring, hold the bottle from the punt. If that makes you a bit nervous, just grip the bottle from the bottom, or use one or two fingers with the other hand to support the neck as you pour.
Try to keep the label facing the guest. This is beneficial for everyone: it’ll help you keep good form while pouring and your guest will be able to check out some of the details on the bottle face. If you’re not pouring for someone in real time, then of course don’t worry about the label!
Do your best to continuous pour. This means, with glasses on the table, pouring from the bottle gently and steadily at a rate slower than you see the foam rising in the glass. It may seem silly but if you’re pouring for more than two, it’ll be a lot easier pouring once into each glass than making multiple trips to each. If you’re able to pour off center, slightly towards one side of the glass and maybe even down it, it’ll keep the champagne from getting too foamy while pouring.
How to Hold a Champagne Glass
It sort of depends on what type of wine glass you’re using, but in general, if there is a stem, use it! Placing your hand in contact with the bowl of the glass will warm the champagne… something you definitely don’t want. Holding it by the foot or base makes drinking a bit awkward (elbow action anyone?) and is a position more prone to spilling or glass breaking.
A universal or white wine glass is the best for holding and drinking champagne. Both the rim and bowl are wide enough to promote aeration of phenolic compounds, but still narrow enough to contain the carbonation. And these types of wine glasses have comfortable stem lengths that aim to balance the glass in your hand.
The right equipment for drinking champagne
For a deeper look into what makes the best champagne glass (and demystifying why it’s not a flute or coupe) check our article here and really start sipping like a pro! And, if you really want to stand out at your next celebration, learn how to saber champagne to really get the party popping!