One of the many highlights of my recent trip to Portugal was visiting Sandeman Cellars in Porto. Tasting a producers wine is one thing, you can conceivably do that anywhere. But the experience is always heightened for me when I get to do it in the winery itself. When you consider that Sandeman has a history dating all the way back to 1790 it’s immediately obvious that a visit there is at least, partially a step back in time. By the same token the upkeep on the facility is staggeringly on point. The sections that could and should be modernized are, the portions that are best as they were, remain intact with care. Being in close proximity to the water and walking into Sandeman Cellars was breathtaking. The history contained in the city and even in that single facility is stunning. There’s something impressive and regal about Sandeman Cellars as an edifice even as you approach it. Perhaps it’s the Sandeman Don looking down on you, or it’s the stucco and stone work that has weathered beautifully over time. In any case it’s hard not to be swept up in the times gone by. But then you have to consider that this is very much a working facility. In earlier days the Port was vinified on site. Now it’s made elsewhere, up in the Douro, and stored in casks and barrels of varying size in Porto. Walking through the cellar I felt as if the wine angels and ghosts of Ports past were walking alongside me. I practically felt them over my shoulder when I tasted some of the wines too.
George Sandeman, who is a descendent of the founder, guided us through the facility on my visit and he was a wealth of information. The tour included a look at lots of historical Sandeman artifacts encompassing documents, classic artwork and even older bottle styles. Looking at pictures of these sorts of things is one thing, to see them inches away a whole other experience. The all-inclusive tour includes a short film that serves to fill visitors in on the history of Sandeman and their production of Port. Again watching it is one thing but doing it a few feet away from barrels full of port, a very different experience. The same can be said for tasting Port not only in Sandeman, but in the very heart and soul of Porto. This is the mother of fortified wines and to taste it in its true birthplace and natural home felt as right as enjoying a glass of wine can.
The coup de grace for me was something that admittedly not every visitor will get to experience. I want to mention it however as it left a deep impression. The group I was travelling with had the good fortune to enjoy dinner in the Sandeman boardroom. We were graciously hosted by George Sandeman and several other terrific folks who work in a variety of capacities for Sandeman. In addition to the great food, the kicker was tasting several of the ports as well as other Portuguese wines alongside dinner. I’m a firm believe that wine is really an important part of a meal, so that’s my preferred method of enjoying it. Tasting Sandeman Ports alongside Portuguese cuisine is even more effective because you get to taste the wines precisely as the winemaker might when they’re putting together blends and making decisions on what works and what doesn’t.
While I was in Porto I took the time to scope out a number of Port producers. As you’d expect there are a lot of them, many of them well worth your time. However if you only have the time to visit one producer in Porto, I believe Sandeman Cellars is a perfect choice. They have the history that will wow you, the consistency of quality that will keep you coming back vintage after vintage, and the stylistic variety to appease most every palate. Once you sample the Sanedman Ports you’ll want to procure them again back home. So it’s also important to note the wide availability of the lion’s share of their different port wines. If you like Port wine and haven’t had a Sandeman, I’m not sure what you’re waiting for. If you’re new to Port the wide berth of styles and price points available under the umbrella that is their portfolio makes them a natural place to start.