World famous opera diva Dame Nellie Melba is coming to sing at Downton Abbey. She will provide the entertainment at Lord Grantham’s dinner party.
Only the best wines will be served so Lord Grantham discusses the choices with his butler, Carson.
We can clearly see the labels of the wines to be served. The red will be Chateau Haut Brion 1900, one of the four ‘first growths’, or top rated Bordeaux wines and for dessert, sweet Chateau Coutet 1919 from Barsac .
The labels look authentic; these famous wineries keep the same label design, making only minor tweaks such as the owner’s name when the estate changes hands. But something doesn’t look quite right. Both labels bear the legend ‘Mis en Bouteilles au Chateau’ which means the wine was bottled at the winery.
This practise is standard now, but not in the first decade of the 1900’s. Chateau Haut Brion was one of the early adopters of Chateau bottling, but it was only in 1923 that they sold all their output in bottle. The usual method was to sell wine in barrels. The barrels were bottled by the merchants who bought them, and they affixed their own label for sale to customers, or the merchants sold on the barrels to clients, such as Downton Abbey, who would bottle the wine themselves.
Selling barrels for later bottling invited fraud. Merchants might ‘stretch’ the wine by blending, and they might – and some did – ‘improve’ the wine’s colour by adding dark Algerian wine or Syrah from the south of France. Or, even worse, black elderberry juice. A weak wine might be given more body by adding brandy or Port.
Even if nothing was done to the wine, there would not be the consistency in the wine that we expect today. Barrels impart their own characteristics on the wine inside and the same tasted from separate barrels will taste slightly different.
It was for the above reasons that the great, and then the lesser, wineries moved to bottling all their output. Before bottling all barrels are emptied into a large tank to mix the wines together for consistency.
At Downton Abbey the barrel of 1900 Chateau Haut Brion most likely lay maturing in the cellars until deemed ready to drink and then it would be bottled and corked by hand and laid down until needed. No label would be needed because the bottles would be in a bin marked with a chalkboard bearing its name and vintage.
Wine was the butler’s responsibility, and he would undertake the bottling. So important was this position in the grand houses of olden times that the person responsible for the wine – the bottler – over time also became the person responsible for running the household and managing staff. His title ‘butler’ is a corruption of ‘bottler’.
Wine was put into bottle to keep it in ideal condition, but bottles were never seen on the dining table. Wine was served from decanters. In the Downton Abbey episode mentioned, we see it poured from crystal claret jugs.
Thus Lord Grantham is rightly impressed when Dame Nellie Melba recognises from taste alone that she is drinking Chateau Haut Brion.
Incidentally, the Australian operatic soprano Dame Nellie Melba, who was portrayed by New Zealand soprano Kiri Te Kanawa in the show, was an international super-star of her day. She inspired the great chef Escoffier to create dishes in her honour and Peach Melba, Melba sauce and Melba Toast are still found on menus today.
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.