Solera System? – Out of this world, when it works!
The sun is setting and you’re watching over the sea on the Costa de la Luz as you divulge in to your pimiento peppers and fresh seafood platter. The local Flamengo artists are serenading in the background as you sip on your local delicacy of Sherry, just outside its birthplace, the region of Jerez.
The Solera method, which originated in Jerez, Spain, for the production of Sherry, is a wine ageing system which blends multiple vintages to create a reserve of consistent quality. Most famous for its inception in Sherry, it is also a method used by its Portuguese neighbours for Madeira and Port.
However, the method didn’t stay local and stop there. This technique ventured to its northern counterparts in France. We will look at how it is used in Champagne and the benefits and drawbacks of such a method which is used by a handful of producers.
HOW IT WORKS
Solera means ‘on the ground’ in Spanish and this directly relates to the method used in Jerez for Sherry. Criadera (Nurseries) are containers used for Sherry and they are stored with the newest wines at the top of the deck. Each Criadera will hold a vintage and each year the bottom Criadera, ‘on the ground’, will be used for bottling. After the wine is removed the Solera system will be topped up again with new wines and the process will continue.
In Champagne, the system is adapted and the wines of varying vintages are all stored and aged together in the same container. Oak barrels or stainless steel vats are used dependent on the winemakers preference. Each vintage the winemaker may decide to add the some of the wine of the year to their Solera. The decision will be based around numerous factors and takes a lot of skill to judge which year is right to use and in what proportion to keep the blend favourable.
USE IN CHAMPAGNE
There are numerous benefits to this method and winemakers have used the technique to create a perpetual reserve that has complexity, depth and a consistent style of the terroir. Grower producers who generally own smaller amounts of land rely on the quality of each vintage. The use of a Solera can place less dependence on the individual vintages yield and quality which means the perpetual reserve can be used to blend into new cuvées. Our friends at Champagne Albert Beerens use large 47hl barrels to conduct the wine using a Solera approach. They take parts of the Solera for blending and the Cuvée Signature has around 35% of Solera wines added to the wine of the year. “This adds body, character and subtle hint of oak from the large barrels.” Anne-Laure Beerens, Champagne Albert Beerens.
SOLERA DOES IT!
Not only is it a great tool for reserve wines, it also has the potential to create Champagnes that are solely focussed around the Solera. By using only the best vintages and carefully working with the wine throughout the year, a Solera can create outstanding wines that have tremendous ageing potential. The addition of new wines can balance out the older vintages without taking away the depth of flavours. However, change the balance too much or use a vintage which may not suit the existing blend could damage the perpetual reserve and take a lot of vintages to rescue! It truly is a remarkable winemaking skill. We tasted our first bottle which celebrated the use of the Solera method in Champagne when we tried Vazart Coquart 82/12. The wines dated back to the 1982 vintage through to the incredible 2012. An absolute delight!
GAMET SOME MORE!
Over in Mardueil, on the banks of the River Marne, Philippe Gamet and his family are using the Solera method in a unique approach to create their prestige cuvée, Caractères. As true worshippers of their land and terroir, Champagne Gamet, use the wood from the forest which is located next to the vineyard to age some of their wines. “This helps us to continue in our mission of showing the taste of our terroir.” Marianne Gamet. The Solera wines make up 80% of the Cuvée Caractères which is then blended with the wine of the year. Philippe keeps adding to his perpetual reserve which dates back to the 1999 vintage. This gives a whole new dimension to the wine and establishes a complexity of which the domain is renowned for.
The Solera method is a unique approach and something that is certainly growing in Champagne. The rewards are plentiful but it takes commitment, skill and a lot of attention to get it right! The beauty of the vigneron.