Consider the dilemma: you can afford to drink Champagne, but you know nothing of the rituals that surround it. To whom can you turn to solve this very modern problem?
Leading Champagne producer G.H. Mumm has stepped into the breach, launching a set of “Protocoles” that are available via its website, an iPhone app and on Facebook. In total, there are 100 rules organized into 12 chapters, one of which is being released each month.
Company spokesman Alex Wilson says the aim is to encourage people “to enjoy their Champagne moments all the more with a greater knowledge of the customs that people have developed over the past two centuries.” And, presumably, to increase sales of its Champagne, although G.H. Mumm is already one of world’s top brands, shipping eight million bottles a year to 150 countries.
After promising to teach readers to “be a gentleman of Champagne,” the Protocoles begin, logically, with choosing the right bottle: “Simply grabbing the nearest Champagne is up there on a par with wearing socks and sandals: simply unthinkable!” Tip no. 1 ("Zen and the art of surprising your guests") suggests: “If your natural preference is for a pint of stout, stop reading now.”
The stylish, tongue-in-cheek tone of the Protocoles is echoed in their design, the work of Israeli graphic designer Noma Bar, who’s now based in London. “It was the first time I’ve worked with alcohol,” says Bar, “but the Protocoles have an element of pantomime which I quite enjoyed: going back to old manners and rituals, with a waiter in white gloves and demonstrating particular hand gestures when pouring Champagne.”
The simplicity of the designs is a hallmark of Bar’s work, along with the use of “negative space” to define his subjects. Employing hands – as he does in the Mumm project – is also a favorite technique. “It originally started when I moved from Israel to England and I couldn’t speak English at all,” explains the designer. “Using type [text] had been one of my main tools so it was almost like losing my voice. Using hands to express myself worked well.”
Having disposed of the right temperature for serving Champagne (generally 8°C/46.4°F) and the best way to open a bottle (you’re aiming for “that elegant, soft little hiss”), the Protocoles turn to sabrage. That is, opening a bottle “like a Napoleonic cavalry officer.” After proudly unsheathing a saber (preferably short-bladed), a drinker must “carefully examine the neck of the bottle and find the join in the glass.” That’s the weak spot. Using the blunt edge of the saber, take aim and fire! Aware that this could be regarded as showing off rather than swordsmanship, the Protocoles add: “Narcissistic, moi? Just practising a noble tradition. It’s not your fault it impresses people along the way.”
Bar reports that illustrating the sabering section was quite difficult. “I had many options and they all looked quite deadly. For example, I had a face on the cork but it looked as though the saber was chopping off its neck and it was quite scary.” In the end, he opted for clear, precise diagrams that make the idea of sabering oddly attractive.
Readers of the Protocoles who want to take the matter further could join the international sabrage order La Confrérie du Sabre d’Or. Its members aim to proceed through the ranks by sabering increasingly large bottles. Those who can saber a methuselah (a six-liter bottle) become grands commandeurs. The Oxford, England, branch of the Confrérie adds helpfully that “mishaps are very infrequent ... Sometimes after several chippings and no popping, the cork has worked its way loose enough to fly away without the sabre dislodging it. We call this ‘Premature Ejaculation Champenois.’”
What would be a suitable occasion for slicing the neck off a bottle? Wilson of G.H. Mumm suggests “a relaxed picnic with friends in which you take the time to sabrage a bottle and create a fabulous memory.”
And having got the top off, what glass should one use? The Protocoles advise that “the only glass that perfectly accommodates the flavours, colours and the vertical ascent of bubbles is the flute.” According to tip no. 40, “The famous Champagne coupe has gradually been abandoned because of its low and open shape … such glasses allow the flavours to escape from under your nose.” However, exceptions to this rule are permitted: “Legend has it that [the coupe] was modelled on the bosom of Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV. This story alone will delight your guests and give your tasting a touch of charming piquancy.”
Even after producing hundreds of sample sketches for the Mumm series, Bar confesses that he is “not a great Champagne drinker. My role is totally observer.” His different design projects mean that “every time, I’m discovering new cults: cigarette madness, or jeans – it’s a whole crazy thing, worse than Champagne; it’s a religion.”
However, the passion felt by Champagne’s admirers does not escape him: “I’m a graphaholic,” says Bar, “so I can understand people who are crazy about drinking Champagne.”