Curious Small Sips #9: Solera system

Although the solera system sounds almost galactic, it is in fact an Earthly system of fractional blending used most commonly in the region of Jerez, in Southern Spain. Developed for commercial reasons in the second half of the 19th century, it is a labour intensive blending method designed to smooth out the differences between vintage years.

It comprises a system of interconnected barrels from which a portion of wine from the oldest barrel is drawn each year and then topped up (though not filled fully) with young wine from the latest vintage. Each barrel in the solera is filled with a one year younger wine (labelled first criadera, second criadera and so on). It takes its name from the Spanish word suelo which means floor i.e. those barrels closest to the winery floor. Over time you get a consistent ‘house style’ of wine with a more-or-less constant average age. The solera has long been associated with the production of Sherry (like Orleans Borbón Manzanilla for example), for which Jerez is most well known, but it is used also for blending Brandy de Jerez, fortified wines such as Málaga, Montilla, Madeira, Liqueur Muscat and Australian fortified wines like Liqueur Tokay.

The reason it is so efficient in the cultivation of flor wines (Fino and Manzanilla Sherry and cousins Vin Jaune in Jura, France and Tokaji in Hungary) is because it is refreshed each barrel with brand new micro-nutrients in the young wine to keep the yeast happy for several years. No barrels in the solera are ever emptied so there is always some exceptionally old and mature wine in the blend, which adds to its complexity.

Image: Old fortified wine barrels in Bleasdale cellars, Langhorne Creek, Australia; © Bleasdale.



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