Technology » Personal Tech

’Virtually’ Delectable :: Sandeman Port Tasting Via Webcast

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Aug 28, 2012

Wine tastings are thought of as being chic affairs hosted in high-end wine shops as a way to entice customers to discover new favorites and buy them, or by wine producers looking to court wine writers and others in the press. Either way, wine tastings take place in a definite physical environment: A retail space, a restaurant, a winery, or perhaps even a convention hall.

Until now.

In a cutting edge innovation, Snooth Media's "Drink Better Wines" division has created a "virtual tasting" experience that allows oenophiles, wine professionals, the media, and the curious to sign up for web-cast "virtual tastings" that are led in real time by those who produce, market, and serve fine vintages.

Nor are the parameters restricted to the wines one might find at the table over the course of a typical meal. Other kinds of wine lend themselves just as well to such virtual tastings, as participants in a recent Sandeman Port webcast discovered.

Port is traditionally understood to be fortified wine produced in the Douro Valley in Portugal. Fortified wines, including sherry, madeira, and vermouth, as well as port, have had distilled spirits added. This increases the wine's alcoholic content and also lends different flavors to the finished product. In case port, the spirituous distillation is usually added to red wine, though white wine ports are not unknown.

For the Sandeman Port virtual tasting, four red wine ports were on the menu: the Founder's Reserve, the Vau Vintage 2000, the 10 Year Old Tawny Port, and the 20 Year Old Tawny Port. (The company does produce white ports, but they are not available in the United States.)

The Sandeman company has been in business since 1790. The company makes other fortified wines in addition to port, including sherry, madeira, and Brandy de Jerez. Port wines, unlike many unfortified wines, are not made from a single grape varietal, but are typically made from blends. The grapes used in Sandeman ports are grown in the Douro region, where they are harvested and pressed; the final stages of port production take place at the company's facilities in the Portuguese city Vila Nova de Gaia, and involves aging in oak barrels.

Sandeman wines are instantly recognizable by the traditional label that depicts a Spaniard in a cape. The official Sandeman site recounts the origins of the iconoclastic logo:

"In 1928 George Massiot Brown was an artist working for the Lochend Printing company, who approached Sandeman for business. Sandeman requested some designs for posters, and the remarkable silhouette of the Don was born," text at the site relates. "Dressed like the Spanish caballeros de Jerez in a Portuguese student's cape and wide-brimmed hat, the Don cuts a dark, dramatic figure with his glass of ruby colored Porto.

"George Massiot Brown was well aware that French poster artists were very much in vogue," the text adds, "so [he] signed his artwork as G. Massiot to hide his Scottish origins."

That's right: Scottish. The Scots have graced our tables, and our glasses, with more than Scotch Whisky, after all. The Sandeman site recounts how in the late 18th century George Sandeman, "an ambitious young Scotsman from Perth," established himself as a wine trader in London and began to explore European sources and the global market.

Sandeman also pioneered something that would become a universal practice: the concept of the brand, or label.

"Sandeman was the first company to brand a cask," the text at the Sandeman site notes. "In 1805, Sandeman started fire branding their trademark GSC (George Sandeman & Co.) in a crow's foot design on all pipes they sold, thus giving the wine a name that assured quality. At the end of the nineteenth century "brand" names were largely unheard of but Sandeman wanted to give their customers a guarantee of quality so in 1880 they became the first Porto House to export bottled and labeled wines." Cue that famous caped silhouette.

Today's George Sandeman is a 7th generation wine maker. Sandeman co-hosted the Snooth virtual tasting with Snooth Media's Editor-in-Chief Gregory Dal Piaz. The webcast was live from 'The Saint' Bar and Lounge in New Orleans.

Logging on for the virtual tasting, the viewer was treated not only to the webcast, but also a text commentary from tasting participants and an official moderator. The participants dished, opined, shared tidbits of knowledge, and, when it came to the sound quality (the first 10 minutes of the tasting were inaudible thanks to a hash of static), gripes. An official moderator also chimed in from time to time. Together with a glass of each of the four features ports, EDGE was able to enjoy the full interactive experience. (So can the EDGE reader: Snooth virtual tastings, including this one, are available for replay.)

Unfortunately, the initial facts and banter offered by Sandeman and Dal Piaz were lost in the static, but Sandeman could be heard laying claim to his forebear's crucial role in discovering port wines and introducing them to the rest of the world.

It wasn't long before the technical issues were resolved, the sound quality improved drastically, and the sampling started.

Bottle #1: Founder’s Reserve - $20 SRP

This first bottle tasted every bit derived of its red wine origins: Red fruit, some dried cherry, maybe hints of chocolate played on the palate. This port was rich and flavorful, and somewhat bold on the tongue.

Port is sweet and syrupy by nature, but this bottle, aged 5 years, had a nice bite about it. Sandeman held forth, telling Dal Piaz (and us watching from afar) that fruit with a touch a maturity that gives roundness and smoothness to this port, while good tannins and good acidity make it very fresh and clean. The result is a balance between the red fruit boldness and clean finish.

"It’s not cloying," Sandeman said. "That’s the big thing. Any sweet wine that ends up being cloying or sugary, that’s bad. It’s not what you want... you get tired right away."

Not cloying, no. This port was fresh and lively.

Sandeman introduced the Founder’s Reserve label around 1980, Sandeman said, "based on the 1977 wines, which was a spectacular vintage." After the style "went off a little bit," in subsequent years, the port came back to a high standard of excellence, Sandeman continued, adding as an aside that he felt it was important to be honest about both the high points and not-so-high points of one’s product. Since then, Sandeman noted, the Founder’s Reserve port has been very consistent. "Blending is all-important," reckoned Sandeman.

Dal Piaz, taking note of the port’s big flavor and sweetness, suggested that the Founder’s Reserve might pair well with game meat, especially if the meat were served with a berry-based sauce.

"If you’re serving it with a snack of cheese and bread, it’s a fantastic combination," Sandeman went on to say. The Founder’s Reserve also has "a lot of attributes that work very well" with chocolate, for those who’d prefer to sip along with a sweeter dish.

The ongoing text chat from virtual tasting participants sang the bottle’s praises.

"It’s massive and saturating on the palate, yet still fresh," wrote one tasting participant.

Sandeman himself offered an encomium to the port’s accessibility. "This is a good port for people who like port but who don’t want to have to study about it." Moreover, this is a bottle that can be decanted and enjoyed over the course of about a month, with the passage of time lending it "some evolution," Sandeman observed. "It doesn’t go bad" in a hurry, as some decanted ports might tend to do.

Bottle #2: Vau Vintage, 2000 - $42 SRP

The tasting moved on to the second bottle of the evening, the 2000 Vau Vintage.

"Vau Vintage is 100 per cent vintage port," Sandeman said. "We like to think of this as vintage port ready to drink." In other words, unlike the previous selection, this bottle, once decanted, should be enjoyed without ado. Sandeman recommended polishing the bottle off within 2 or 3 days of decanting it. "If it’s a question of keeping wine for 25 years and then drinking it in 24 hours, there’s no reason not to drink" wines like this, Sandeman opined.

The Vau Vintage possesses a lighter aroma than the Founder’s Reserve, and that lightness extended to the sensation the port brought to the tongue. To me, it has more of a sherry flavor. Sandeman reckoned that this was a good port to use in sangria, and indeed, it was easy to imagine it in that context.

One taster messaged that this port’s flavor profile contained "come cola notes," while another alerted us to his impression that the vintage was "still youthful."

Sandeman, coincidentally, addressed this last point, saying, "If you want to keep it for another 4 or 5 years or 10 years, you can do that, but it’s really nice to drink now." As to the flavor, Sandeman characterized the Vau Vintage as possessing "Lots of fruit, softer tannens, more integrated tannens.

"As it ages, the wine is more breathable, round, full," Sandeman added, going on to note that this bottle is "starting to develop those classical vintage port aromas."

Dal Piaz, meantime, picked up on flavors of "licorice, [and] plum... there’s a lot going on" with this vintage.

Other tasters agreed. "Lots of fruit and picking up some caramel," messaged one participant.

The Vau Vintage has a very different label from the other Sandeman ports. This as by design, Sandeman said. "We did this on purpose because we wanted people to understand this is not the classic vintage port," the winemaker explained.

Because our messaged comments and questions were being read, some of the queries posed by the tasting participants were passed along to Sandeman and Dal Piaz. One taster asked whether there was any specific glass that would be better than others for drinking port wines.

"Any glass is a good glass, any red wine glass, any white wine glass," Sandeman stated. "The tradition of drinking the port from very small glasses" comes from the Victorian age, he said, when a small amount of port or sherry would simply be swilled, not appreciated. Of course, to appreciate the aroma of any wine fully means using a glass with a wider bowl; it’s the same rationale as enjoying a fine brandy from a snifter.

The moderator also had a say. "The size and shape of the glass is important as it highlights the flavors, aromas and enhances the pleasure of the tasting," the moderator messaged. "When choosing one, make sure you can feel the aromas (not too tight), swirl ... and enjoy properly."

Sandeman also fielded a query regarding how much of the fruit that his company uses in its wines come from sources other than its own vineyards. "Of our premium wines," Sandeman said, "I’d say 99% of it is from our own estate. We have very good and extensive vineyards in the Douro region, and then we also outsource from farmers whom we’ve worked with for generations."

Bottle #3: 10 Year Old Tawny Porto - $30 SRP

Tawny ports derive their color from being aged in oak barrels. (As one participant informed the rest, "Tawny is defined as a Porto that ages in wood for 7+ years.") The 10 Year Old Porto has a reddish color, quite unlike the dark red, inky appearance of the previous bottles, which were both ruby ports. Though the 10 Year Old has "got touches of red in it, you start to get the amber coming through," Sandeman noted.

The nose on this vintage is subtle: floral and sweet, the aroma contrasts nicely with the earthy flavors it contains; walnut notes, and some vivid spice. One taster perceived "cloves" and "maybe some nutmeg," and Sandeman allowed that, "These wines look delicate, but they are massively" solid.

Solid, but not rough and tumble: "This is silky compared to the velvety Vau," Dal Piaz opined.

This bottle, like the Vau Vintage, should be enjoyed promptly once it’s been decanted. Noted the moderator, "Aged Tawnies are ready to drink when bottled and they are not intended for a long aging in bottle. Enjoy them when you open the bottle." And don’t worry that they’re going to run out: "Our commitment is to systematically blend every year and provide fresh bottles for your pleasure."

The discussion continued about whether or not to decant this bottle. "Not all Porto wines need to be decanted," the moderator noted. "Decanting helps with aeration and sediments. When you have a cork that you can open and close (not requiring a corkscrew) you can serve directly from the bottle. Wines aged longer in bottle, like an old Vintage, with throw sediment with age and then need decanting."

The moderator added a tidbit along these lines, posting this advice: "When choosing a wine to lay down for several years or decades, ideally choose a Vintage Porto."

The discussion then turned to the fact that port is always made of a blend of grapes. "The people in the past, 200 years ago, learned that vineyard with several varieties" produced better fruit, Sandeman explained.

One taster chimed in with the fun fact that "Porto (theoretically) can be made of some 47 different grape varieties, 23 of which are white. If only white grapes are used, you have a Porto Branco (White Port). White Ports can be dry or sweet; young, or aged--for example, some firms age their white just like their 10-year Tawny (red) Portos."

Bottle #4: 20 Year Old Tawny Porto - $60 SRP

The longer a tawny remains in a wood barrel, the less red tint remains. Consequently, the 20 Year Old Tawny is more, well, tawny than the 10 Year Old.

The nose and flavor are also quite distinct. The aroma is bright and fairly dry; there’s something of the syrupy feel still about the 20 Year Old, and notes of walnut linger, but the vintage is light and bright and broad on the palate.

One participant messaged her observation that the "20 year is delicious--nutty, light caramel nose, not overly sweet, and pleasant acidity."

At this point, mediagenic star mixologist Andy Seymour entered the fray, joining Sandeman and Dal Piaz. Seymour was about to share a couple of recipes for cocktails made using port wine. Yes, that’s right: Ports are not necessarily to be drunk straight and only straight. They can serve as ingredients for more elaborate concoctions.

"When you look at the old drinks, you see that many of them had ports" as part of their recipes, Seymour noted, before going on to give the modern mixologist a little sage advice: "Its okay to take what you’re crafting seriously, as long as you don’t take yourself too seriously."

"Sandeman 20 Year Old Porto makes an amazing cocktail with a dash of Chivas 12 Year Old," wrote the tasting moderator. "Try the Sandeman Tawnytini." Indeed, Seymour was launching into a demonstration of the "Tawnytini" even then. The moderator thoughtfully provided the recipe so that those of us watching via the webcast would not have to grope for a pen and paper.

The "Tawnytini" is made from "Sandeman 20 Year Old and a dash of Chivas Regal 12 over ice," the moderator wrote. "Stir[red], not shaken, and then strained into a Martini glass. Garnish with a twirl of orange peel and release the orange oils on top." (Seymour was more precise about the measures, detailing that it should be 4:1 tawny to whisky.)

For a "tini" of any sort, one needs the classic cocktail glass, Seymour noted. That was easy enough; but, not having any Chivas Regal, I was forced to improvise and made do with Knappogue Castle 12 Year Old Irish Whiskey. As my husband, a former bartender, noted, both are blended whiskeys. (One does what one must in a pinch. To quote Seymour, when he also departed from orthodoxy, "Please don’t start writing in.")

Seymour reckoned that the term "cocktail" is "relative," and seemed a touch reticent about definitively labeling the "Tawnytini" as such. But the semantics of the matter didn’t stop him from delivering an animated presentation. In addition to the "Tawnytini," Seymour demonstrated how one could make a simple and delightful drink by pouring Founder’s Reserve over crushed ice and then adding a slice of lime and some mint.

The query went to Dal Piaz as to what his favorite Sandeman drink might be. Dal Piaz kept it simple, and reached for a pitcher of Sangria: "Hahahahahaha!" was his gnomic, but joyous, comment.

More recipes are available at the Sandeman Facebook page.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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