I recently was given a rather special gift by Professor Mathew Vadas AO of the Centenary Institute in Sydney, which Tintilla wines have supported for over a decade, it was a hand blown wine pourer of an impressive size! It got me thinking about how we serve our wines and of course the influence of screw caps- they seem to have taken the theatre out of pouring wines.
It goes without saying decanters have played an important role throughout the centuries. Now the purists among us would say a decanter comes with a stopper such as seen in the two traditional glass decanters seen here and a carafe is a pourer without a stopper. Either way, they are primarily used to separate the sediment that settles in wine as it ages.
In Greek and Roman times wine was stored in sealed Amphoras and was known to age well for many years.
The famous Roman wines Falernian and Surrentine aged for decades and carried a price premium when compared to everyday wines. Indeed the Greeks were known to like the resin flavour that came from sealing the amphora with Aleppo Pine Resin. This Retsina style of wine still is consumed today although I suspect a more refined flavour from what I have tasted! By the third century, the Romans had started to use wooden barrels and the need for resins faded.
Following the fall of the Roman Empire, the appreciation of aged wines disappeared and ready to drink now wines dominated with the risk of turning into vinegar if not consumed soon.
Wine has always been an integral part of feasting going back as far as 700BC. Hosts served large quantities of meat, bread, mead, beer and wine in beautifully decorated metal flagons and pourers.
This silver wine pourer from the mid-6th-5th century BC survives from the Persian Empire. The front is in the form of a winged griffin wearing a necklace, the top is decorated with lotus buds and flowers. It would have been used to top up drinking bowls during the feasting.
An example of a silver and gold bent-horn cup, while the shape resembles a classic Persian wine-pourer or rhyton, it actually functioned as a drinking cup. Large animal headed cups were popular in the 6th-4th centuries BC.
We are possibly more familiar with the Greek traditions of drinking wine using a traditional kylix, a broad-rimmed, shallow vessel. The famous Symposium was where much drinking and debate occurred.
Amazingly these cups held around 250ml and their shape enabled the drinker to imbibe while in a recumbent position.
This bronze age drinking cup was found in Cornwell and dates back to about 1600 BC, while here is a Roman Silver drinking cup from about 75-10 BC found in Hertfordshire UK. Accompanying the cup were items of local pottery and Italian wine jars.
This brings me back to the need for wine pourers. Clearly, it is a struggle to pour straight from an amphora and intermediary vessels were developed, such as the smaller piriform amphora seen here or this decorated Greek Jug.
The quality of Roman glass wear as seen in this pouring jug reflects their knowledge and appreciation of wine and fine dining. All this was lost in the dark ages. It wasn’t until the 16th century that Europeans started to rediscover the benefits of aging wines. indeed it was the sweeter more alcoholic wines such as Malmsey and the forerunner of Port, -Sack arose interest. German Riesling with its high acidity and sugar also showed aging advantages.
Next in the story came the development of the glass bottle and elongated neck that would take a cork and give an air tight seal. A collection of 17th Century glass bottles from Hopeton Estate ( home of our first Governor-General) just out of Edinbrough seen here with flat bottoms to prevent them falling. Indeed there was a whole industry of cork cutters that arose to fit corks to individual bottles.
It is said Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux was the first to cork their wine in the 17th Century and famously Thomas Jefferson was a customer, the corks enabling the bottles to travel back to the USA.
During the Renaissance period, it was the Venetians who reintroduced the glass decanter with its long slender neck and wider body that allowed a greater surface area to react with air. The addition of a glass stopper to limit the exposure to air was the result of British glass makers in the 1730s. From a design point of view, little has changed but the style has reflected the societal changes.
So the debate began as to how long to leave wine in the decanter. Aeration, allowing the wine to breathe, and releasing aromatic compounds is another aspect of employing a decanter. However, some wines can rapidly lose their attractive characteristics if left for long. Famously in Sydney, a Chevalier du Tastevin dinner host enthusiastically opened all the Red Burgundies well before the dinner and by the time they were served, it was impossible to appreciate some very expensive wines brought for this special occasion. Sangiovese like Pinot Noir needs little aeration while Cabernet, Shiraz, and Merlot can benefit.
Indeed the benefits of decanting apart from separating sediment is hotly debated. Exposure to oxygen can dissipate more aroma elements than it stimulates.
The aesthetic and ritual aspects, however, can be of value. I have enjoyed the display and technique at some wonderful restaurants such as the Antica Bottega del Vino in Verona and the Commanders Palace in New Orleans where a key attraction is the way they open, decant over a candle and serve the wine. A modern version at the newly opened Woods restaurant at Brokenwood was the use of the waiters iPhone light to try and decant a 1989 Grange!
This assortment of modern decanters with stoppers we use when wanting to mask the wines. Decantered close to the time of serving there is unlikely to be any risk to the wine and with the large Riedel glasses generally used on these occasions little need for aeration or long exposure to air-the glass stopper helps here.
Another use of modern wine pourers is as trophies at wine shows. They seem to have replaced the “silver” trays and may be more practical!
I started with a modern wine pourer and here is the creator Nick Mount, blowing a modern version of a wine decanter.
So the age-old tradition of making wine pourers lives on, more for the aesthetics than anything else in the era of screw caps and most wine being consumed within hours of purchase.
I have used photos I have taken in the British Museum, The Louvre, The Vatican, the Nicholson Museum, the Canberra Museum and elsewhere for this blog. #aroundhermitage #huntervalley #bobsblog #tintillaestate
Author: Robert Lusby AM
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