Sandeman: a solid base in Tawny Port & a back to the future step up with Vintage Ports
Latterly Sandeman Port House’s most distinguished offerings have been their highly acclaimed Tawny Ports – take Sandeman 30 Year Old Tawny Port which, last year, completed a hat-trick by winning the IWSC Port Trophy for the third year in a row. But watch this space because, as was emphatically demonstrated by last month’s Sandeman V20 Tasting (a vertical of 20 Vintage Ports), Sandeman Vintage Port is back on form or, as George Sandeman put it, “we have a solid base in tawnies and we’re looking forward to a great future with Vintage Ports.”
You’ll find my notes on the 30 Year Old Tawny and V20 Tasting of 20 Sandeman Vintages Ports below (with IVDP vintage reports for generally declared years, so a fair few missing where Sandeman had a penchant for ignoring the unspoken not in successive years’ rule). First, here’s some background about the changes which have led to the new improved Sandeman Vintage Port.
Introducing the tasting George Sandeman explained that, “structure and balance were very important and true to the historic style of the house” but, in the 1980s, “you started to see a bit of a weakening of the style.” Moving into 2000, he continued “we start to see what we believe is a recovery of the style of classic traditional Sandeman Vintage Ports, especially with the 2003, 2007 and 2011.”
As for the reasons behind the recovery, he attributes it to Sandeman’s entry into the Sogrape stable (in 2002) which, he said, resulted in “much better access to very high quality fruit,” a dedicated new state-of-the-art winery (Quinta do Seixo) and, neatly handing over to him, a new Chief Winemaker – Luis Sottomayer. Investment, investment and talent then.
From Sottomayer’s perspective the changes came about with effect from 2003 when, he reports, “we first tried to learn the style of Sandeman.” This they did by looking back and tasting older vintages several times, talking to George and then looking at the grapes from Sandeman “to see which kind of grapes would do the job… and in 2007 and 2011, we really understood what is the real style of Sandeman Vintage Port and we bottled it early.” And, as I later discovered when we spoke one to one, Sottomayer has also introduced earlier picking – “you must not harvest or pick with great maturation….the grapes must be picked soon. Why? To preserve the acidity….acidity and body must be close and in balance.”
Sottomayer’s take on the style? “It must be robust and strong – a great wine” which, in his definition, can age for more than 30 years in bottle. Referring to the trend towards more friendly and easy to drink Ports he pondered “I don’t know if we commit a mistake…we must put in bottle a wine to be drunk not only for us, but for our children and grandchildren – for many years as our ancestors did 200 years ago. Ports that are still drinkable nowadays.” For him the benchmark examples are the 1944, 1956, 1955 and 1957.
As we chatted after the tasting Sottomayer told me he preferred the older wines from the 1950s through to the 1970s to the Ports from the 1980s and 1990s when, he observes, Sandeman was not in family ownership as before and now (it was owned by Seagram). Returning to those Ports which he himself made, as you’d expect from this always immaculately groomed perfectionist, he doesn’t spare the horses. He opines, “2003 was just the beginning, by 2007 though we feel we know exactly the style, we still didn’t know the provenance to do it (but we were very, very close) and, by 2011, we had the time to know which grapes and wines suited the house style.” Looking back he says maybe I should have picked 2007 earlier and, going forward, he reckons he would prefer more freshness.
As for provenance, nowadays the block planted grapes come from Sandeman’s Vau and Seixo vineyards, both of which have Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca (for body and structure),Sousão (for colour and tannin) and Tinta Cão (for acidity). He reiterates “my job is to choose the best moment to harvest these varieties” and I’m looking forward to shadowing Sottomayer this vintage to gain a first-hand insight into the process. In common with other Port winemakers working with block planted vineyards, he nonetheless prefers to co-ferment (different varities) because “it results in much better integration.” He tells me that he is aiming to stop the ferment at more or less 100g/l residual sugar.
Sandeman 30 Year Old Tawny Port
For George Sandeman, “unlike most British Port houses” his family’s business had always invested well in tawnies – Tawny Port was first laid down in 1887. And there’s a reason for that which he has the good grace to admit! According to Sandeman tawnies were originally laid down “without the knowledge of the (British) shippers (who were based in London) by the Portuguese blender who set them aside!” This 30 Year Old Tawny Port is typically made from wines between 24 and 40 years of age. It’s as bright and pure as its hue – a real coup for a wine of this age. Both nose and palate still show an intense concentration of fruit – caramelised oranges and dried apricots. The wood integration is quite seamless, making for a really smooth palate with an attractive lift of sandalwood and vanilla spice. A delicious nuttiness (peanut brittle, smoked hazelnut) pervades the very long, precise and persistent finish without in any way undermining freshness or clarity. Similarly, it is deliciously mellow without being in the least unctous or over-concentrated. Outstanding. 20% abv, Total Acidity 5.5g/l, Residual Sugar 120g/l.
Sandeman Vintage Port 1944
I’ve had the great good fortune to taste this fine Vintage Port twice in two months, my first at leading Portuguese writer João Paulo Martins’ Icons Tasting. Though I think the first was the better bottle (this bottle had a touch of smokiness and underbrush), this bottle still has the smoothness, freshness, persistence and balance which so delighted me first time around. It makes for a certain delicacy even though the wine is holding so well. Sandeman’s own tasting notes mention iodine which, perhaps prompted, I notice as an added nuance to its subtle coffee macaroon, barley sugar and dried plum and apricot flavours. Excellent.
Sandeman Vintage Port 1955
Typical extreme weather conditions from freezing cold to burning heat. Musts had particularly good color and registered a higher than average sugar level, producing wines that created exceptional Vintage Port. I recall first tasting this vigorous wine in 2012 and, deep and ruddy still, it’s an even a deeper hue than the younger ’57. The sweetness comes through on the nose which is nutty and sweet with complex peanut brittle, smoke and iodine notes fuelled by a charge of spirit, all of which follows through on a jammy but firm, robust and still corpulent palate – much “ruder” than the ’44 with pot pourri and eucalypt notes to the finish. Very good.
Sandeman Vintage Port 1957
Uneven weather conditions, still resulting in some good wines. The wine was predicted to mature early into an attractive and delicate Port, which it did. Pale with a delicately fruity, elegant nose (spirit well under wraps). Closer to the ’44 than the ’55 but with a little more fruit weight (dried plum) and spice – indeed, quite marked liquorice and more lifted aniseed and (herbal) coltsfoot notes. It’s a little woody/smoky on the finish which detracts from the purity going through. Going back, it seems a little dried out on the finish. Good.
Sandeman Vintage Port 1963
Quite even weather conditions allowed for a very good harvest, which destined 1963 to be an exceptional year. Large production. Normal winter and cold rainy spring, but with good weather during flowering. Hot and dry summer. It only drizzled just before harvest (end of September), perfect weather, with very hot days and cool nights. Nice reddish bricky hue with good fruit still on the nose – nuances of sweet red plum and cherry laced with a good twist of black pepper which continue their dance on a lively, incense lifted palate. Firm mineral tannins bring length and precision to the finish and does its balanced, persistent acidity. Very drinkable. Very good.
Sandeman Vintage Port 1966
Mixed vintage with very fine wines although in relatively small quantities. This is sometimes undervalued as Vintage year. Normal winter, with some rain, but afterwards the weather became dry between April and September. Grapes with a high sugar level, some of them burned. It only rained slightly at the beginning of the harvest (end of September). Scarce quantities. A robust quite savoury, nutty, smoky nose with lashings of liquorice and plum here animated by quite strident spirit, all of which makes for a fiery Port with lots of oomph (technical phrase!). Very good.
Sandeman Vintage Port 1967
The weather conditions were unstable but globally the wines were judged to have more colour and quality than the 1966’s. Abnormally cold year at the beginning of winter with temperatures under 0 degrees celcius. Late and scarce blooming. Hot summer, with some thunderstorms. Late harvest under good conditions. Some excellent wines were produced, sweet and fruity, declared by a small number of producers. A deep, ruddy edge to its tawny hue. Although this wine appealed to some I am not sure if I had a different bottle but I found it a bit dank and very spirity. Failed to work its charm on me. Or maybe it’s my ’66 bias!?!?
Sandeman Vintage Port 1968
Quite rich, round and ripe on nose and palate, conjuring up a childhood image of fatty lamb chops. Here attractively laced with pine needle, liquorice and salt, in fact it has a creamy salt caramel quality too. A spicy finish lingers and leavens. Interesting in, I think, a good way.
Sandeman Vintage Port 1970
The weather conditions were quite diverse but the wines had very impressive colour and good fruit. A lot of rain in January and February, followed by a cold and dry March. The weather started to warm up in April, favouring good flowering, fruit set and grape ripening. Rain in August and at the beginning of September, but the harvest was made under dry and very hot weather conditionswith the temperature reaching 45 degrees celcius in certain areas, Very mature wines. Quite deep in colour with a spicy lifted cedar and more pungent methi nose. In the mouth it’s creamy with a round, sweet palate and broad, quite firm tannins. A burnish of wood lends a nuttiness to its clove, aniseed and liquorice accented finish. Bit four square.
Sandeman Vintage Port 1975
First vintage to be declared after the April 1974 revolution and the first to be totally bottled in Portugal, under legal resolution. After a rainy winter, it was a hot and dry year, particularly during the summer. Some rain at the beginning of September, before the harvest. Late harvest, at the beginning of October. Scarce quantities. Flat but spirity, unfortunately the bottle I tasted was out of condition.
Sandeman Vintage Port 1977
A classic Vintage. Deep purple and fruity wines, rich in tannins, with a good aging capacity. Almost all producers declared production. Cold and rain in the first months of the year. Late flowering and slow, steady ripening. Moderate summer, but very hot September. Very spicy nose. Long in the mouth with a creamy body – nice weight – of sweet plum and dried fruits edged with gum cistus. A well balanced, well supported and very satisfying finish smoulders spicily and warmly – a hug in a glass. Very good.
Sandeman Vintage Port 1978
According to Christopher Sandeman (eight generation), after a spring with very bad weather, a long and hot summer resulted in some good wines. It’s a surprisingly deep hue after ’77 and is oddly primary/sweet in the mouth. A little varnish/dirty too. Very odd.
Sandeman Vintage Port 1980
Dry winter. Poor flowering under rainy and cold weather conditions, but the summer was hot and dry, with rains only at the end of September, just before the harvest. Exceptional quality, but lower quantity than normal. Deep purple and fruity wines. Oxidised with a distinct rancio quality and hot finish.
Sandeman Vintage Port 1982
Very dry year. Cold winter. Good blooming. Very hot summer. One of the earliest harvests on record. Low quantities, but with good quality. Very spicy and, though quite mouthfilling (albeit stewed and muddy), it’s drying out and bitter on the finish.
Sandeman Vintage Port 1994
For a vintage renowned for its exuberant fruit this falls well short of the mark. Its rather unfocused plum fruit lacks concentration and purity. Especially going back I’m aware of a fug of smoke. Disappointing.
Sandeman Vintage Port 1997
Early spring was very dry with warm temperatures. Flowering started one month earlier than in previous years under good weather conditions resulting in good fruit set and bunch development. Late spring had high rainfall and overall, summer was not too warm, allowing for steady ripening. Harvest started mid-September in dry weather. Grapes arrived in good condition, with high sugar levels and good balanced tannins. A very forward Port with ripe squishy, sweet and unfocused strawberry fruit and a rather flat-footed cocoa finish. Quite forward; seriously lacks gumption.
Sandeman Vintage Port 1999
A deep hue with an uber-floral rock rose and violets nose. Much more precise fruit (cassis and raspberry) than the 1997 but it’s a little toothsome and sweet and lacking in depth – again, trying too hard to appeal. Too broad brush and sweet.
Sandeman Vintage Port 2000
A dry winter, with 15-40% less rain. Hot February and March, rain in April and May. Some rain from June to August. Slow ripening: harvest delayed for two weeks in September, temperatures around 40 degrees celcius. Excellent quality wines, compact and appealing early on, fruit very evident. A more interesting properly Port-like nose reveals ripe and yielding fruits of the forest, a description which neatly describes the tannins too. It’s a little overblown on the palate which has a blueberry muffin hyper-sweetness/perfume and slightly soupy fruits of the forest. Although a little sweet and soft, it has more fruit intensity and spicy interest than the ’99 and ’97.
Sandeman Vintage Port 2003
Normal rainy winter. Dry spring. Normal season temperatures except for the end of July and beginning of August (45 degrees during the day and 30 degrees at night). Harvest under abnormally high temperatures. Full-bodied wines with tannins to give the necessary structure for good ageing potential. Exceptional quality. Much fresher and tighter with, for 2003, good balancing acidity. It has an attractive core of cassis with some overripe prune notes, but the cassis wins the day sustaining the palate and bringing a degree of precision. Liquorice and gum cistus notes bring layer. The tannins are robust and unyielding which, together with the fruit concentration, firmly flags the change in style from its predecessors. Good +, with promising development potential.
Sandeman Vintage Port 2007
Great conditions during growing season, with long and perfect vegetative cycle, resulted in wines with superb acidity, balancing the aromatic richness and structure to make them lively and fresh. The resulting Vintage wines have a strong character with very rich and complex aromas. On the palate, they show a powerful structure, with firm tannins of great quality and remarkable length and balance. This is a favourite vintage and one which is looking very good right now based on recent tastings. Most definitely a step up from the 2003 in terms of structure precision and all round finesse. Inky and, sure enough, palate-staining, with just a hint of prune/raisin it has a precision to its heft of black fruits which areamply supported by a chassis of powdery but present and firm (think iron filings) tannins. A long, tight, mineral finish bodes very well for ageing. Very good.
Sandeman Vintage Port 2011
Over July and August, uncharacteristically low temperatures contributed to a slower ripening cycle, with the region’s main varieties – Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz – producing excellent fruit with optimum levels of acidity. The near perfect weather conditions on record for 2011 have given rise to wines with deep purple colours, with floral, fruity and spicy notes, intense flavours and excellent acidity, resulting in full-bodied wines with great bottle-ageing potential. A Classic Vintage year! Blimey this seems intensely raw and brooding after the older wines. Iron fist no velvet glove! Very tight knit and not giving much away on the nose, in the mouth its shows deep-seated cassis with flowers and minerals, fleetingly accessible but palpably present. But really it’s all about structure, structure and structure. Luis Sottomayer clearly did have his children and grandchildren in mind! Click here for a previous tasting note from when I tasted this wine at greater length and alongside other 2011s – it was among my pick of an outstanding bunch.