This month’s blow the budget - and my first, as a new starter at The Cabinet - comes from the sunny banks of the Douro river that flows through the city of Porto in Northern Portugal. Having a week away in the home of Port wine and a free £100 to sample said wine was an opportunity that could not be missed.
I should mention at this point that until recently I have not been much of a wine drinker until recently, and have little knowledge of Port wines. Come to think of it, the only time I have ever drunk Port is as a constituent ingredient of a Cheeky Vimto! Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. So for me this was an exciting and entirely new alcoholic experience.
First up then, the Sandeman tour and tasting. Starting at 10.30 and me not being much of a breakfast person, this meant that my first meal of the day would be several glasses of Port. Don’t judge me, I’m on holiday! The Sandeman cellars are an impressive collection of buildings dating from around 1797 on the south bank of the Douro River. Here we met our guide who promptly ushered us in to the cellars and began to talk us through a little of the history of the Sandeman brand, how Port wine is made and the main types of Port: white, ruby, tawny and vintage.
I will assume that most people reading this will have a good idea of how Port is made, so I’ll focus a bit more on the branding. From this perspective Sandeman was something of a pioneer by being the first wine brand to begin branding their casks in 1805. Literally, with a hot iron. The GSC (George Sandeman & Co.) initials were a signature for the brand that guaranteed the quality of the liquid within. This mark is still part of the brands toolkit now and can be see used as an asset on seals, labels and collars across the portfolio. In 1877 with the creation of the Trade Marks Registration Act in England, GSC George Sandeman & Co was registered and is now one of the oldest registered trademarks still in use today.
Their famous ‘Don’ image is also a great example of introducing a new brand asset that has become iconic over the years. The image was first painted for an advertising poster in 1928 and depicts a dark figure holding a glass of tawny, wearing a Portuguese student’s cloak and a Spanish sombrero. These two items of clothing referenced the two main product of the Sandeman portfolio, Port wines and Spanish Sherry. It wasn’t long after this that the Don found his way on to the brand labelling and packaging where he has remained ever since.
So on to the tasting. The first one we tried was the Fine White. There was a crisp sweetness to the drink, not overly sickly and quite refreshing. Probably the best to start with at breakfast time. Next up was a Late Bottled Vintage Ruby from 2016. This was aged longer in very large wooden casks and had a very dark, rich red colour. I wasn’t a big fan of this one, it had a much stronger and intense flavour with a lot of tannins in the liquid which instantly coated your mouth. I generally prefer white to red wine and slightly sweeter ones at that, so I suppose this isn’t the one for me. Finally, we tried the Fine Tawny. We learned that this starts life as a Ruby port but is matured in smaller casks, meaning the wine has more contact with the air and wood which oxidises it, giving it its distinctive amber, translucent colour. I much preferred this to the Ruby, it had a more complex depth of flavour without the heavy body and mouth-coating part.
After a stop for some lunch at the Mercado Beira-Rio (a bit of a mini Time Out Market) and to line our stomachs a bit before the next round of drinking, we headed around the corner to Porto Augusto’s.
We chose to visit here as it was a complete contrast to Sandeman, a small family run operation as opposed to a big global brand. Augusto’s was started by three families of 100% Portuguese heritage who wanted to focus on Port wines of excellent quality rather than large quantities. Only 35,000 bottles a year are produced. That still seems like a lot of wine! All of their grapes come from two vineyards and are all harvested by hand by local families. Some of the grapes are even pressed in the traditional way by stomping on them. The varieties they use are largely unique to Portugal although a couple of Spanish and Italian varieties are used for their white Ports.
After a short tour around their cellars, we sat down for the tasting, starting with their Fine White and Fine Ruby. The Fine white was delicious, quite sweet without being sickly, it was far smoother and crisper than the Sandeman White. You could really tell the difference in quality between the tow. The same could be said for the Fine Ruby. This had a lovely, complex fruity taste without feeling overly heavy and without the tannins that the Sandeman equivalent had. After this we moved on to a White and a Ruby Reserve Port. Reserves are made from a blend of vintages and spend longer maturing in the barrel, giving them a more complex flavour. I was less keen on these two, philistine that I am. I found them to both be stronger tasting, probably more complex but with a less fruity taste. The white was crisp with a slightly more bitter taste towards the end and the red was heavier with more of the tannins, which you have probably realised by now, I am not a fan of.
Being nowhere near blowing the budget we stayed and tried a couple more of the rarer and more expensive wines from Augusto. The first was a vintage Ruby from 1996. Vintage Ports are all bottled from the same harvest when there is a particularly excellent year. These wines spend longer maturing in the bottle so their flavours are always evolving and have an aging potential in the bottle of up to 70 years. Of all the Ruby’s we tried this was far and away the best. It had the fruity characteristics of the other Ruby’s but much smoother and richer in flavour. Definitely coming around to Ruby’s at this point.
The final white we decided to try was Augusto’s 20 year old white. We really were saving the best untill last! I found this to be absolutely delicious. It had a lovely fruity taste, being sweet and smooth and very refreshing. Our guide was absolutely right when he suggested that if you like smooth whisky you’ll love this. This did have some of the similarities with a smooth whisky but without the warming/burning sensation that follows. I would have loved to have taken some bottles of this back but with no check in bags for the flight home we were out of luck. Augustos only sell from their cellars, they do ship internationally bit but since the UK left the EU the shipping cost has jumped up to over £50 for just one bottle. Nice one Brexiters!
Ultimately there was a big difference in quality between the two cellars we visited, Augustos being by far the nicer wines (for me). Augustos did let itself down on the branding side of things. I did ask our guide what the story was behind their branding but all I really got was “The writing looks like a Port”. Fair enough I suppose. They know their product a lot better than I do. So that was it. Our day spent sampling Port was over. A thoroughly enjoyable day and a new convert to Port Wines, well, some of them anyway.