Now under the auspices of Sogrape Vinhos, S.A., but with George Sandeman still very involved in the company that proudly bears his family’s name, Sandeman is receiving the attention it deserves from the ownership group and consumers. The Sandeman name and infamous “Don” logo are recognized around the globe.
I cut my teeth on 1963 Sandeman Vintage Port about 25 years ago, while working at New York City’s The Water Club, as the Back of the House Manager. The wine buyer, Sam Correnti had built a great dessert wine list which featured a nice variety of Ports. His fervor led him to install one of the city’s earliest restaurant Cruvinet (wine preservation) systems, which enabled bartenders to serve the 1963 Sandeman Vintage Port by-the-glass, at a time when such practices were practically unheard of in the USA.
Just over a decade later I made my first sojourn to Porto/Gaia and the Douro and while mesmerized with nervous energy at a Wednesday luncheon at The Factory House, I met George Sandeman for the very first time. Since then, I have been fortunate to taste a large swath of Vintage and Tawny Ports produced by the House of Sandeman. Before I could afford to drink mature Vintage Port often enough to satisfy my growing passion, I discovered that “Vintage Character” (now known as “Ruby Reserve” or “Reserve Ruby”) was an adequate and affordable sipping Port. Sandeman Founder’s Reserve was an early favorite of mine.
After WWII, in the early 1950s when economic realities caused Port to fall on some pretty hard times, George Sandeman’s father David decided to raise capital by going public with his family-owned operation. Along with other factors, this took a significant toll on the long term profitability of the company and in the early 1980s; (about the same year as I started to drink Port) Mr. Sandeman had little choice but to sell his business to Seagram’s.
This multi-national beverage conglomerate was far more vested in hard alcohol and more specifically, Seagram’s own brands. They were never seemingly serious about Port and from what I researched in my younger days; there was pressure on Sandeman’s winemaking and viticultural team to pump up the volume. I noted a distinct difference in the quality of their Founder’s Reserve which became lighter in body and intensity. I believe it was a result of changes which took place with the harvest yields, in terms of significantly increased number of tons per acre (or in EU terms, hectoliters per hectare). This was my impression at the time and I’ve never substantiated it one way or the other, but regardless, there was no question that the Port itself was no longer the same delicious drink I had originally fallen for.
Even worse, the quality of Sandeman’s Vintage Port took a nose dive after the 1980 vintage and while most Port shippers had great years with 1983 and 1985, the Sandeman 1985 is a decent number in a soft, elegant style, while Seagram’s opted to vinify the weak 1982 instead of 1983 for whatever reason. Honestly, it had been since the back to back Sandeman 1966-1967 VPs that a really top notch VP had been made, although I admit to a weak spot for their stylish 1977. It should be noted that Sandeman historically declared a greater number of vintages than any other company except for possibly Quinta do Noval … both of which chose some unusual vintages (e.g. 1958).
Around the time of the 200th anniversary of Sandeman which was founded in 1790 by a young Scotsman named George Sandeman, his young ancestor with the identical name became firmly entrenched in the company “managed” by Seagram’s. George Sandeman made it known that his family’s legacy in the Port trade was not going to be ruined and made a tremendous push to right the ship by striving for quality and no longer pumping out huge quantities of mediocre Port wine. Quinta do Vau was at the root of this movement and slowly but surely things improved.
The 1994 Sandeman VP was respectable and certainly better than the recent Vintage Ports that preceded it. However, it was not until 1997 that Sandeman really hit its stride, with the launch of the 1997 Vau Vintage Port. Vau Vintage Port was intentionally created to be more approachable at an earlier stage of development and was to feature softer tannins that would have the Vau really hitting its stride between 10 and 15 years of age. In a very tannic vintage like 1997, that was easier said than done and it is my belief that the 1997 Vau VP will drink well at twenty and even twenty five years of age, yet as by design, it can be enjoyed today too.
Both the 2000 and 2003 Sandeman Vintage Ports were a major step up in quality from recent pre-’97 VPs, (while the Vau Vintage Ports achieved their softer style) and although Sogrape took over ownership early in the decade things have continued to improve. George Sandeman is still a very prominent figure not only with his family’s Port company, (Sandeman also produces Sherry, DOC Douro wine, Brandy and even a few Madeiras) but he is well-entrenched within the Port trade and is very involved promoting Port around the world.
The future looks bright for Sandeman Ports and Sogrape has made investment in viticulture, Quintas and production facilities since taking over. Of course they also happen to own Ferreira and Offley, which directly compete with Sandeman for market share, but that is an entirely different story for another day.
For those that are planning a trip to Vila Nova de Gaia, the renowned Sandeman Lodge and museum is absolutely one that has to be seen. Albeit it’s quite the “tourist attraction” there are still many historic mementos and unique Portifacts which should not be missed. The extraordinary collection of ancient Port bottles is well worth the time and effort and still fascinates me to this day. The exhibits change around but some are part of the permanent collection and viewing some of the fabulous original prints of the Sandeman “Don” which was commissioned by George Massiot Brown in 1928, is a “must see” for any true Port lover. Additionally, there are some artsy promo posters used in early advertisements by Sandeman and many fun Port knick knacks in their gift shop, some of which are irresistible.
In December, I started polling our Forum readers about their favorite Vintage Ports from specific Port shippers and producers. Sandeman was the second Shipper chosen and I think those of you who haven’t seen this before will find it very informative:
What is your favorite vintage of Sandeman Vintage Port? Follow the link and join the discussion on the FTLOP Forum!
Address: Largo Miguel Bombarda 3, 4400-222 Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal
Phone: +351 223 740 533/ 34 or 35
Owners: Sogrape Vinhos, S.A.
Winemaker: Luis Sottomayor
HOUSE OF SANDEMAN TASTING NOTES:
The pairing of 20 and 40 year old Sandeman Tawny Ports is always a treat:
Sandeman 20 Year Old Tawny Port Light orangish/brown color. Ah, the nose shows such fine perfume of toasted almonds, a smoky almost charred peaty note and butterscotch. This Tawny has always been one of my go-to 20 year old bottlings as Sandeman's 10, 20 and their 40 year old are incredibly consistent and delicious. Rich, elegant and smooth with a caramel core and a praline highlight that adds complexity. As good as it all sounds, the strength of this smooth operator is the harmonious, minute long finish that is like slurping sweet liquid hazelnuts. 94 points
Sandeman 40 Year Old Tawny Port Eye appealing amber waves of grape and a sublime mix of crème caramel and acidity, along with a well-developed nutty nuance. Offering a complex mid-palate with a wealth of peripherals tending towards caramel and butterscotch. Overall, this 40 year old delivers excellent balance and great textural pleasure that lingers for minutes on the intricate, creamy aftertaste. To be perfectly honest, I have never bought into the 30 or 40 year old Tawny Port marketing scheme. That said, I have enjoyed many 30 and 40 year old Tawny Ports, but feel that they typically don’t represent good value for money. The difference between a 20 year old tawny and the two older versions is almost never worth the additional price of admission for my palate. Sandeman’s 40 year old is an exception to the rule. 93 points
In a long line of very fine VPs, here are my impressions of a few older bottlings:
1945 Sandeman Vintage Port Rich, dense, with youthfulness that belies the true age of this fine VP. Due to the preserved ruby and a rim which showed little development, most guesses at the table were in the mid-1980 range and only one person thought '1970' out loud. Offering a great nose of rose petals, spicy cinnamon and licorice. This Port provided palate pleasing plump red berry fruit and sweet grenadine flavors that were quite appealing, with concentrated flavors that improved in the glass. Overall, a skillfully balanced VP providing a smooth, velvety finish with candied nut nuances that kept on coming. As good a showing as any '45 Sandeman I've experienced. Drink now or anytime during the next decade. A great wine to toast a 65th birthday in two years! 94 points
1955 Sandeman Vintage Port Light ruby with an orange edge, this elegant Sandeman which has long been one of my favorites of the vintage offered sweet floral, brown sugar and confectionary aromas. Most of the group of 18 loved this wine and waxed poetic. Very silky and generous cherry fruit danced in the mouth. Drinking beautifully at 'peak' at 49 years old and there is no need to wait to break one out of the cellar. The Sandeman '55 showed its grace and exceptional balance with depth and length on the finish along with a touch of toffee and almond nuances. I've long been a fan of this wine and it will last on this 'plateau' for quite awhile. 93 points
Sandeman has rebounded in recent years and here are some younger VPs:
2000 Sandeman Vintage Port Along with a new Millennium vintage, the Sandeman 'Don', one of the most recognizable icon logos in the beverage world, has subtly changed. The new image depicts the Don holding the usual glass of ruby colored Porto, but sports white highlights that show creases and muscle tone in the arms etc. Although Sandeman was sold to Sogrape, (a positive move, after a number of years languishing in the doldrums under Seagram’s ownership) George Sandeman's steady hand has successfully guided this well-known Shipper into the 21st century. This VP is medium ruby in color with lush plum and spice on the nose. The smooth yet dense grapey and black fruit flavors are chock full of big, ripe tannins. Sandeman’s masculine and drier house style is aptly depicted here and shows an intriguing chocolate note on the very smooth and enduring finish. One of the best Sandeman VPs tasted in many vintages. There is excellent long term cellaring potential with this Port. 93+ points
2003 Sandeman Vintage Port I have had this wine on several occasions and this was the best showing to date. A wonderful nose of spice, strawberry and that tell tale boysenberry flavor that I enjoy in many young Sandeman VPs. The 2003 has put on some weight since my last tasting, about a year earlier and it is dense and chewy and has really hit its stride. It falls into the dry spectrum with viscous blackberry fruit, a solid attack of acidity and plenty of tannins to take this the distance. The prolonged finish was most impressive. Nice to see how well this is showing at this stage; but it will be in prime time circa 2025. 92+ points
2007 Sandeman Vintage Port – Cask sample. This was the 20th overall 2007 Port I tasted. From my first sip to my last (a few days later) this was absolutely wonderful juice. A 2nd bottle was evaluated for 4 days (blind of course) and provided consistent notes. Aromas of fresh plums, tar, pine resin, herbs and brambly blackberry. Packed, pure, powerful, ripe plum and blackberry fruit are smooth and sumptuous, a really sexy Port not only densely concentrated but with remarkable balance throughout and already showing lots of complexity. The tannins are massive, drying yet non-astringent and the acidity is spot on. The length of the aftertaste had me talking to myself and shaking my head in disbelief (and I had no idea which this was). Sandeman’s VP is one of the three greatest surprises of the ’07 crop, and immediately won a spot in my Top 10 standouts of the entire vintage. At the conclusion of one of my days of tasting, David Guimaraens stopped by as we were on our way to having dinner and I said, “You really have to try this one and tell me what you think.” After sipping, spitting and some contemplation, he nodded his head in approval and mentioned in his understated manner, “That is very good.” Try a bottle whilst young or bury it in the cellar for at least 20 years or through mid-century. Portmaker Luis Sottomayor deserves major kudos for this outstanding achievement, producing the finest Sandeman since 1963! 95-97+ points 6/25/09