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’Virtually’ Delectable :: Sandeman Port Tasting Via Webcast

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Aug 28, 2012
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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.



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