“Billy C. is drinking Sandeman Port down at the old café
And the river goes by slowly, the river likes it that way.”
- The Knuckleball Suite, Peter Mulvey
In the world of wine, there are a few images that stand the test of time and can truly be described as iconic, instantly conjuring up the history not just of a long-standing producer, but also of the entire region that producer calls home. And when you’re iconic in the world of wine, with its long historical perspective… well, then you’re just f*cking iconic, period.
In America, we have such an icon: the Missionary-style tower at Robert Mondavi winery in Napa Valley has come to represent not only the history of fine winemaking at RMW, but the entire modern history of fine winemaking in all of Napa (and by extension all of the U.S.), by virtue of the man who just about singlehandedly started it all.
The world of Port in Portugal has such an icon, too: The Don – that tall, dark-cloaked stranger that stands so prominently on the Gaia side of the river Douro (and who’s a lot more Zoro than creepy-flasher), is instantly recognizable to anyone walking along the shoreline in Porto. George Massiot Brown’s poster design from the 1920s has come to represent not only the 200+ years of Port-producing history that began with Scotsman George Sandeman – to many, it represents Port, period.
So when you’re offered samples of the icon’s range of age-designated Tawny Ports (from 10 to 40 years old) for possible review, you think twice about turning them down. In fact, in that scenario, as a wine geek you really have only two options: 1) decline the samples, or 2) plan on staging a comparative tasting and pairing them with Apple, Cranberry & Walnut Pie with Stilton (from page 208 of Sid Goldstein’s excellent The Wine Lover’s Cookbook).
You can guess which option I picked…
I’m going to jump right into the tasting action here, because there’s a lot of it and, let’s face it, that’s probably what all you attention-deficient wine geeks want. So if you’re new to Tawnies or just want a refresher on how they’re made, check out this excellent treatise on the matter by Roy Hersh.
So… how were the wines? For the most part, excellent – with one exception…
10 Year Tawny Port is often a mixed bag – in my experience, it’s not difficult to find a decent one but it’s often difficult to find a great one (Warre’s, for example, has Otima – a 10 Year Tawny marketed to Millenials that happens to wickedly over-deliver for its price-point).
Sandeman’s 10 Year Tawny (about $29) is a different – and slightly schizophrenic – animal: it sets a standard for how a Tawny ought to look, and it manages to preserve hints of the peppery spiciness that you’d usually find in Ruby Ports, while also bringing the toffee notes that are Tawny’s hallmark; but the whole package is slightly off-balance, which emphasizes the alcohol even in the wine’s long finish. Overall, it slightly under-delivers for the price-point, and might actually turn Port lovers away from trying its pricier, longer-aged big brothers.
Which would be a crying shame, really, because things take a decidedly steep upswing in quality (and price) when you get to Sandeman’s 20-years-and-up Tawny range.
Generally, I came away impressed by the balance and complexity of those wines, each of which was worth the price tag and all of which paired beautifully with our dried-and-baked fruity/nutty dessert (it sure beat the hell out of Champagne and cookies, anyway):
Sandeman 20 Year Tawny Port (Porto)
One of the most well-balanced and accessible 20-year Tawnies I’ve had in a long while (the closest thing, for me, would be Ramos Pinto’s excellent 20-Year offering), this wine comes off as refined and even a bit subtle on the dried fruits, emphasizing the aromas of toasted almonds and walnuts as a result. On the palate, things are very food-friendly here, meaning you can go beyond the cheese-and-nuts-after-dinner match and throw some pies and cakes as this wine (just make sure their fruity and not too sweet!). Open this after a holiday dinner party, and make sure you get a nice sized glass before you pour for anyone else, because sooner or later you’ll blink and this bottle will be empty.
Sandeman 30 Year Tawny Port (Porto)
A curve-ball wine if I ever tasted one – which is why it didn’t surprise me too much to learn that some of the big wine mag critics rated this lower than the 20-year: this wine takes a fairly long time (nearly an hour, actually) to develop in the glass and show it’s full range of kick-ass awesomeness. At first, it’s a bit of a boozy mess on the nose, but given time everything comes together in a rich, caramel-nutty, dried-fruit package. And when I say nuts, I don’t mean toasted nuts; I mean pure nuts from the tree, like you picked a walnut, peeled and cracked it open right on the spot. Not a Tawny for the instant-gratification crowd.
Sandeman 40 Year Tawny Port (Porto)
In a word, this wine is sublime. High praise I suppose, but apt: there’s just so much going on here, but all in concert – it’s like the climax to a Cirque du Soleil show. The richness is what will probably grab you first – it takes the sherried, oxidative notes and dried fruits of the 30-year and pumps them all up, then throws in the sweet toffee action of the 10-year and a heap of the refreshing qualities of the 20-year. The result is harmony – (very) expensive harmony, but harmony nonetheless. This is not a wine for your dinner party; this is a wine to treat as mysteriously as The Don himself – a wine to open with your S.O., and then to hoard, enjoying it secretly over the next week or two until every last drop is gone.