Breakfast in bed, maids and valets to take care of everything, and exquisite costumes: the opulent world of award-winning British TV drama "Downton Abbey" has entranced viewers on both sides of the Atlantic since its launch three years ago.
Some of the show’s most lavish scenes take place over formal dinners, during which the aristocratic Crawley family eloquently snipe at each other or exchange meaningful glances while sipping claret poured from crystal decanters.
It’s a spectacle so appealing that viewing parties, at which Edwardian dining is recreated, have become common throughout the U.S., where the Series 3 premiere garnered nearly eight million viewers.
In Britain, the show’s popularity is thought to have accounted for a 15 percent rise in sherry sales at supermarket chain Marks & Spencer, following the second season’s premiere.
Fans of the show routinely take to Twitter to proclaim their love of pairing Downton Abbey-watching with red wine – often consumed in bed, sometimes with a cheeseburger handy. But Downton-inspired dining is a pastime that has been taken up by serious culinary minds, too.
In New York last month, Downton fans observed the new season’s premiere with a dinner hosted by the James Beard Foundation. Guests were served onion-sherry soup, poached hake, roast rib of beef, and St Clement’s tart. Among the wines selected by Waverly Inn wine director Sarah McCusker were:
How to drink, Downton-style
In one episode, housemaid Anna instructs valet Molesley about Downton’s style of wine service. A light white wine is served with hors d’oeuvres, and a heavier white with the soup and fish courses, she explains. They move on to claret, and then a “pudding wine” is served, before diners retire to the drawing room for coffee, accompanied by whatever they might want next.
“Blimey, it’s a wonder they make it up the stairs,” Molesley says, to which Anna replies, “They don't drink much of any of it.”
According to Simon Berry, chairman of Berry Bros & Rudd, London’s oldest wine merchant, claret has always been popular, but Downton-era dining would actually have been dominated by Champagne and the liqueurs that were popular with the king.
“Edward VII was the person who in many ways was responsible for setting the fashion of what people drank,” Berry says, noting that among the most valuable items in Berry Bros’ 1909 inventory was a green chartreuse made before the monks who produced it were expelled from France. It sold for the modern equivalent of 100 pounds ($154) a bottle, as did a 17-year-old Veuve Clicquot.
“It was perfectly normal a) to drink Champagne throughout a meal and b) to start drinking liqueurs a lot earlier in the meal than we do now,” reports Berry, an acquaintance of Downton Abbey’s writer and creator Julian Fellowes.
“If you showed people drinking Champagne and liqueurs, everybody nowadays would go ‘That seems very strange’... I think Julian would say you always have to have a bit of a balance between what reality was and what people expect – it’s a work of fiction, not a documentary.”
But wine historian Paul Lukacs believes "Downton Abbey" does accurately reflect one aspect of wine culture: “It is significant that nobody on the show drinks wine away from the dinner table,” he notes. “These days, we think nothing of having people over and opening a bottle of red wine before dinner – this is a very new phenomenon. Red wine, for the last two centuries, essentially belonged on the dinner table.”
The onset of the Great War changed some habits. Berry and Lukacs both say "Downton Abbey" accurately reflects the postwar introduction of cocktails – a disquieting prospect for Downton’s head butler Carson, and regarded as a suspiciously American proposition by its sherry-sipping Dowager Countess.
“The other interesting thing at that time was how popular German wine was,” Berry says, “and it continued to be so after the war. French white wines, “which are now the fashionable things and the most expensive things to drink,” were then considered inferior. A 1904 Rudesheimerberg – “just standard everyday drinking hock” – cost about 50 percent more than a 1904 Meursault.
It took a marketing push to persuade Britons to try white Burgundy. “I think we said somewhere, ‘surprisingly good to drink with food,’” Berry recalls, noting that Lord Grantham could have bought a 1893 Yquem for the modern equivalent of about 45 pounds ($70) a bottle.
While Lord Grantham and his contemporaries may have routinely enjoyed drinking first-growth claret, Berry thinks there was less prestige attached to specific domaines – especially since wine was often purchased in casks, bottled on the estate by the butler, and decanted before being served.
“In those days, the butler played much more of a part in it than people would probably expect,” Berry explains, adding that Jim Carter, who plays head butler Carson, is extremely knowledgeable about wine.
For his part, Berry recommends vintage port as a cost-effective way of enjoying some Downton-style luxury. In 1924, a 1900 Fonseca would have cost the modern equivalent of 100 pounds ($155) a bottle, whereas a 20-year-old port today can be had for around 75 pounds ($115).
“They are extraordinarily good value,” Berry says. “If you want to drink like Lord Grantham but you don’t want to break the bank, vintage port is probably the best way to go.”