Behind the Bottle: Sandeman 40-Year-Old Tawny Port

Sandeman has helped transform tawny’s reputation from “wood port” to golden child. We track the rise of its 40-year-old port – from an anniversary blend that put it back on the map to branding brainwaves that included the birth of “The Don”

Words by Adam Lechmere

sandeman's 40 year old tawny port
Port house Sandeman – and "The Don" on its bottles – has helped raise the profile of tawny port around the world

Luscious, golden-hued, tasting of honey and dried fruit, nutmeg and cedar, tawny port was for many years seen as the poor relation of the classic vintage styles. In the olden days, when British clubmen were the keenest imbibers of vintage port, tawny was often described as “wood port”, a disparaging reference to the fact it was aged in barrel as opposed to the supposedly superior bottle-ageing of vintage port. It’s only in the last generation that tawny has come to be appreciated outside Portugal – and the venerable house of Sandeman has had an integral part to play in the drink’s change in fortune.

When George Sandeman, the founder of the house, first branded a barrel with his initials in 1805, the relationship between Portugal and England – especially when it came to Douro wines – was never closer. The history of port is bound up with the differing tastes of northern and southern Europe, and never more so than with the origins of the tawny style.

Sandeman Porto Transport in Vila Nova de Gaia
Sandeman was founded in 1790 and was among the first port houses to label and bottle its own wines

The British loved port, but they expected it to be a powerful, heavy wine. “In those days there wasn’t a lot of tawny being sold in Britain,” says the present George Sandeman, the seventh generation to sit at the head of the company. “Tawny was appreciated in Portugal, but it was considered light and wishy-washy in northern Europe, and especially in Britain, which wanted heavy, full-bodied, red, intense younger wines.” Vintage ports, aged in the bottle, were considered the highest expression of port, though as Sandeman notes, they were often drunk before they had acquired the softness and complexity of age.

sandeman royal esmerelda tawny port label
A label from an early version of Sandeman's aged tawny port, supposedly named after one of George Sandeman's girlfriends

The origins of Sandeman’s aged tawny port

The first George Sandeman started laying down barrels in the 1800s and continued to release them as age-statement tawnies, but it was to take decades for the style to gain popularity in port’s oldest market.

Early versions of the aged tawnies were given names: “The 10-year-old was Royal and the 20-year-old was Imperial, then they were called the Ambrosette, and Royal Esmeralda – which were apparently the names of my great-grandfather’s girlfriends,” the current George said.

According to the current George Sandeman, when the giant Canadian company Seagrams took over the house in the 1970s, they were selling no more than a couple of hundred cases of the 30-year-old and the 40-year-old. Seagrams considered tawny not worth keeping (luckily the thousands of barrels in the great old cellars at Vila Nova de Gaia were allowed to stay).

By 1990 – the 200th anniversary of the founding of the company – Sandeman was bottling only the 20-year-old. Then David Sandeman (the current George’s father) decided to reblend the 30-year-old and relaunch it to celebrate the anniversary; it was around then, George recalls, that these “light wines with such a complex flavour profile” began to become more popular – first in the US and then in the UK. Sandeman, which is now owned by the Portuguese company Sogrape, today produces four different age-statement tawnies at 10, 20, 30 and 40 years old.

George Sandeman (past)
George Sandeman
Past and present: The original George Sandeman began laying down barrels of tawny port in the 1800s; his descendant (right), also called George, admits it took a very long time for tawny to be appreciated outside Portugal

What goes into making Sandeman’s 40-year-old tawny port?

Tawny port is made from wines aged in small (225 litre) barrels, the grapes for which (Tinta Amarela, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, Tinto Cão and Touriga Franca) are largely bought in from a range of Douro estates. The barrel ageing process allows more oxidation than bottle-aged vintage ports, resulting in a lighter colour and body, and (aficionados would attest) greater complexity than vintage port. Sandeman has considerable stocks of tawny in barrel – more than 40,000 litres of wines more than 50 years old, winemaker Luis Sottomayor says. “When I first saw them, I was amazed.”

The 40-year-old is made of wines which have been ageing between 30 and 60 years. The barrels are constantly replenished with younger wines so that they maintain an average age, although Sottomayor says that a quantity of barrels are left to age untouched, because “we don’t know if we’re going to produce a 50-year-old. It’s possible. We’ve done some blends”.

At present Sandeman has a special edition, the Cask 33 “Very Old Tawny”, a blend of wines up to 70 years old, but putting “50-year-old” on the label is not yet allowed by the governing body, the Port Wine Institute.

The essential thing to remember about tawny, Sottomayor adds, is that it doesn’t evolve once it’s in the bottle. “It’s the easiest port style to understand. You don’t need to keep it for years or decant it.”

George Sandeman is one of tawny’s keenest fans: “They have complexity and lightness and a fascinating flavour profile. The complexity of young vintage port compared to that of an old tawny is completely different.” These fine wines are no longer disparaged by the British trade: IWSC judges this year awarded the Sandeman 40-year-old a Gold medal, praising its “opulent aromas, elegance and character”.

Sandeman posters
The Don – the striking caped figure synonymous with the brand – has been the symbol of Sandeman since 1928

How did the design come about?

Like so many great wine pioneers, the house’s founder George Sandeman had a genius for marketing. He was the first to sear his initials into his barrels (so inventing branding), and was one of the earliest shippers to label and bottle his own wines. He may not have invented the tawny style, but by the 1800s he was already shipping “rare old tawnies” and laying down barrels for ageing.

His descendants had a similar nose for smart marketing. “The Don [the enigmatic caped figure which first appeared in 1928] was incredibly effective,” the current George Sandeman says. “But what was the leap of faith – and pretty radical for a conservative London wine merchant with cellars in Portugal – was to take the Don and put it on the label in 1935. That just wasn’t done.”

Vila Nova de Gaia, Porto
The Sandeman port lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia, Porto

What’s next for Sandeman?

Sandeman continues to be a conservative company (it is a port house, after all). Things evolve slowly in Porto; as Sottomayor says: “We have a huge quantity of very old tawnies and our job is to maintain the style of the house, and increase the quality.” The first is difficult enough, he adds, but the second is next to impossible. In terms of cuvées, there are plans afoot, he says, but he can’t reveal them. Do those plans include a new port – or a still wine, perhaps? The winemaker emphatically shakes his head. “No. We’re just talking about port – and tawny.”