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Decanting Downton

Posted on 12/08/2015 by Jean Sexton

We know that George Vanderbilt was a thoughtful wine collector in his own right, and he also relied upon the services of professional wine purveyor Alexander Morten who was well-known for his excellent taste and recommendations. As the sixth and final season of the PBS mini-series Downton Abbey approaches, we thought it would be fascinating to look at the series--and our own history--through the lens of a wine bottle.

Wine purveyor receipt for George VanderbiltTo learn more about the process of procuring and preparing wines in the late 19th century, we turned to Jeff Plack, business development manager for Biltmore Wines and a wine aficionado in general, to "pour out" what he knows about the subject. 

"I love the fact that an episode of Downton rarely goes by without the characters sipping wine at some point," said Jeff. "Wine consumption was a direct measure of one’s wealth in that era and it was not unusual for large estates to have thousands of bottles in their cellars. At that time, the wines were mostly French."

Jeff explains that Carson, the Crawley family's beloved butler in the series, would have been largely responsible for the wines served at Downton. "The family might have taken an active interest in wine," Jeff said, "but the butler was generally the person who oversaw the supply and prepared the wines for the dinner table. 

Wine decanting machineIn one episode, Carson is seen decanting wine using an interesting contraption. "It’s appropriately called a decanting machine," said Jeff, "and it helps the user to turn a crank which slowly pours the wine out of the bottle." In the scene, Carson is using a lighted candle behind the bottle to help him see any sediment in the wine. This technique, along with a piece of muslin over the decanter, would help filter out any impurities.

For wealthy households like the one depicted in Downton Abbey, the variety of wines consumed at dinner made a circle of sorts. "Evenings would usually begin with port or sherry and possibly a glass of champagne as an apéritif," said Jeff. "Each subsequent course of the dinner would paired with a different wine."

According to Jeff, wine pairings were different than the ones we make today. "It was less about the science of which wines 'go with' or complement which foods, and more about wines that they preferred. A common practice of the era was to serve a white Burgundy (mostly Chardonnay) with the first course and then a red Bordeaux with the main meal. For dessert, they would move back to something like port and then end with champagne again; a happy circle of wine life," Jeff said. 

With modern winemaking techniques, we no longer need to use decanting machines and filters, and though we enjoy pairing wines based on qualities such as acidity and tannens, we also love complementing favorite flavors with wines we enjoy. Learn more about Biltmore Wines here.

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