George Sandeman tried hard to escape his family heritage. He didn't succeed. As the seventh in a line of Sandemans stretching back to another George, who founded the family firm in 1790, the 21st-century George is the public face of the House of Sandeman (London; Oporto, Portugal; and Jerez, Spain), one of the great old names in the tradition-crusted business of making, blending, and selling the two most famous fortified wines in the world: port and sherry.
Fortified wines are just ordinary wines that get topped up with a dose of alcohol (brandy, often) to keep them stable during shipping and storage. For some consumers, the extra kick is itself a reason to buy a fortified wine. But today, the extra kick is the least important thing about the wine called port. Originally shipped young and bone dry (as in, not the least bit sweet) and then aged in London (all the great port companies were founded by Britons), port evolved over the decades into a wine with a significant percentage of residual sugar, with its dose of raw spirit added earlier and earlier to kill off the yeast that turns grape sugar into alcohol. Consumers responded to the sweet stuff, and winemakers responded to the consumers.
Plenty of port even today is not much more than sweet head-bang, but the high-end stuff that's worth drinking for its own sake has a lot more going for it: robust tannins that give the wine a flavor spine, and plenty of acid, too, to balance the sugar. High alcohol keeps a wine from spoiling, but it's the tannins and acids in good port that make aging it worthwhile. Aging port got to be such a fad in England that in the early 20th century, elderly relatives used to purchase a dozen cases or so on the birth of a (male) grandchild, leaving strict instructions that the lad wasn't to be allowed to taste his heritage until the age of 30. By the end of the 20th century, port had acquired as many rituals and traditions as a cellar has cobwebs, and beginning in the 1960s, even knobby British youths began to regard it as old-fashioned and fusty as gaiters on a bishop. For a while, it looked as if port would die out along with the duffers who drank it.
The Sandeman family seems always to have been a bit ahead of the curve. In 1928, when port's stuffiness quotient was at its highest, the company commissioned the trademarked image that still adorns every bottle today—a dashing silhouette wearing a Spanish caballero hat and a Portuguese student cape that owes nothing to historical accuracy and a great deal to the popularity of film idols Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolf Valentino.
When it came time to try to re-enliven the brand and its products in the 1990s, the company wisely decided against updating its image (a bare-chested Antonio Banderas, perhaps, cracking a whip?) and opted instead to update the product. Many port companies still issued a dozen or more ports every season, sowing confusion and apathy among younger drinkers who didn't want to have to get an advanced degree before ordering a glass.
Sandeman cut its line back to the basics: large-production red and white ports for sale in pubs, barrel-aged blends designed to reflect the firm's racy house style, and top-end single-vintage bottlings made only in particularly good-weather years and able to improve over even decades of aging. The "Founder's Reserve," retailing for about $17, is an example of a house blend; the "Vau" vintage, selling for about $30, typifies the latter style. The current bottling, from 1999, is raring to go now but has a good 10 to 15 years of improvement ahead should you choose to lay some down.
But most people could care less how old their wine is as long as it's a pleasure to drink right now. For these consumers, ex-rebel George Sandeman has come up with a truly radical product: a vintage port designed to be drunk as soon as it's shipped. For people who think of port as inevitably on the stodgy and sticky side, the Sandeman 2003 vintage port ($55) is a revelation. It's as bright with fruit as a village Beaujolais, as tannic and tangy as a young cabernet without young cabernet's signature roughness; and with its sugar so well under control, it cries out to be drunk not with fruitcake but with real food—rich pork and duck preparations, sumptuous braised beef, even meaty seasonal stews like cassoulet. Sandeman is confident that the wine's good for at least 30 years in the bottle without fading. Anyone with a grain of sense will drink it as soon as they get it home from the store—or as soon as they unwrap it. Delayed gratification is so last century, don't you agree?
For more about port in general and Sandeman port in particular, visit www.sandeman.com.