In time for New Year’s parties — and the Downton Abbey premiere of the sixth and final season this coming Sunday — Doug Frost, a KC-based wine consultant and writer, has outlined for us the whys and hows of proper decanting.
Because Downton Abbey takes great pains to reflect a truthful portrayal and the lives and times of its characters, you may have observed Carson, the butler, carefully decanting a bottle of Port. It may seem anachronistic, but most old bottles of red wine merit decanting, the careful pouring of the bottle into another vessel for service. The may be news to casual wine consumers not in possession of a wine cellar filled with ancient wines, much less one deep beneath an imposing English manor. Indeed nearly all wines purchased in the U.S. are consumed within a day or two of purchase.
But the milieu depicted in Downton Abbey valued the character and flavors of a “properly aged” wine; wine connoisseurs of that day believed fine Bordeaux was at its best at two or three decades of aging. Today’s wine lovers may or may not agree, but the cultured sensibilities of Downton’s residents viewed it as an obvious truism. Yet older wines are typically laden with sediment, accrued color and bitterness clumped like dark sludge. There’s nothing terrible about sediment (though it can leave your teeth looking a bit potty if you try to drink it), but a trained butler would know to decant an old wine before service to remove that sediment.
The entire process is as simple as storing the wine on its side (as is typical in any wine cellar), carefully removing the bottle from its cellar perch, pulling the cork while still maintaining the bottle at a sideways angle, and then pouring the contents into a serving decanter, leaving the sediment behind. All this needs to be done as gently as possible so as not to disturb that sludge. A classic method sees the wine butler (we call them sommeliers these days) employing a candle to sight the sediment as is slowly follows the liquid towards the neck of the bottle, stopping just before it glops into the decanter.
Carson can be seen using cheesecloth at times, which acts as a filter against whatever sediment might slip through the neck of the bottle. It’s traditional to use such a filter for bottles of Port, as Port wines have more sediment than most, and because the bottles tend to be so dark as to render a candle ineffective as a sighting device. Perhaps in a future episode we may see Carson trade up from cheesecloth to a Port funnel, a dedicated device that has a strainer built right into it.
But the servants of Downton Abbey and most of its residents (Violet Crawley perhaps excepted) have usually been more practical than ostentatious. So cheesecloth is just as effective, especially if you’re in the kitchen and the guests are on the other side of the door. The next time you find yourself opening a bottle of twenty-year-old Vintage Port, give it a try.
— Doug Frost is one of only four people in the world to hold both Master Sommelier and Master of Wine titles. Read his blog, Doug Frost, and follow him on Twitter @winedogboy.
Love Downton Abbey? Catch the season premiere at 8pm on Jan. 3, 2016, on KCPT.