I've never paid much attention to the wine on the Crawley family's dinner table on Downton Abbey. All that changed Sunday night in episode two of the new season, when one of my favorite wines made a cameo appearance. I said to my husband "Stop! We have to go back and see that again." In a wonderful scene Lord Crawley goes over the wines to be poured with Carson for the evening's dinner service. There it was, in between the Cheval Blanc and Haut-Brion, a bottle of Chateau Coutet Sauternes, vintage 1919. This happens 19 minutes into the program. Yes, I took pictures of the TV screen.
"What surprised me with Downton Abbey is how often Sauternes is served." That's Aline Baly, co-owner of Chateau Coutet. "In almost every single episode where there's a dinner scene there's a Sauternes, which was referred to as pudding wine."
Sauternes is the sweet white wine of Bordeaux, a blend of Semillion and Sauvginon Blanc, with a tiny bit of Muscadelle. The grapes are affected with botrytis or "noble rot," a mold that concentrates the juice in the grapes, raising sugar levels. Grapes for Sauternes are harvested much later in the season, well after dry wine grapes, so that sugars and flavors can develop once the mold has set in. By harvest time the grapes are shriveled up like raisins and barely have any juice left. But that juice is golden in color and tastes like nectar, full of honey, stone fruit and white floral notes.
Chateau Coutet is a classified first growth (1er grand cru classé) in the Barsac district of Sauternes in Bordeaux. You may have heard of its famous neighbor, Chateau d'Yquem. Aline's family has owned the winery since 1977, and she's been working at the chateau for five and a half years, traveling around the world to spread the word about her wines.
Aline is a recent fan of Downton Abbey -- she binged watched the first three seasons last year. Luckily for her she had seen the show by the time the production company for the series called her asking permission to feature a bottle of Chateau Coutet in an upcoming episode. "I shouted! My whole staff turned and looked at me, what is going on? I was like of course of course I give you full permission. I'm a big fan of the show, and I've noticed they always serve Sauternes."
I've known Aline for several years and couldn't be more excited for her. Days after her Sauternes' cameo, she's still on cloud nine. "I've been bombarded with emails from friends, family, people I've met from where I've traveled who have spotted the bottle," she says. "It's a great confidence boost for the whole family, we're like 'yes!'"
Aline says she wrote Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes a thank you note and invited him to come visit the winery. She loves his attention to detail, filling the show with items appropriate for the time period. "It's nice to see a show that a works really hard to depict history, that looks at the details to ensure that it's unique to that era and one that loves Bordeaux and is active in showing our wines from the whole region."
Spoiler alert. The bottle that you see in the show isn't actually a bottle of the 1919 vintage. Aline says Downton Abbey's prop department had obtained a bottle of a younger vintage and "prepped it." But, Aline says happily the winery still has the 1919 Chateau Coutet in their library. The oldest bottle, she tells me, is from the 1870 vintage. Chateau Coutet was established in 1643.
Will there be more Chateau Coutet poured during Crawley dinners at Downton Abbey? "I don't think we'll see another bottle of Coutet but we can always hope for it," Aline says. Cheers to that.
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