What is Solera?
Sherry is one of the most fascinating fortified wines in the world with a wide range
of styles and tastes to suit everyone. The way Sherry is aged has a huge influence
on its aromas and flavours, creating a unique taste experience. Sherry is matured
and blended in a complex system of barrels (known as butts) called a "solera system".
Documents show that Soleras were probably developed sometime in the 18th century
and were a common sight in the bodegas of Jerez by the middle of the 19th century.
Prior to their implementation, all Sherries were vintage dated.
Soleras were designed to help smooth out some of the differences between vintage
years and it was quickly noticed that the older wines accelerated the rate at which
the younger wines aged. Another advantage to the solera system is that wines
matured in a solera maintain their high quality. Some Sherry shippers even claim
that the wine is improved by its contact with oxygen as it moves from one scale to another.
The Solera System?
A solera system is made up of a series of tiers containing wine of different ages. These tiers
are called "criaderas". The criadera containing the oldest wine is located closest to the floor
and is called the "solera" after which the whole system is named. The criaderas layered on
top of the solera level contain progressively younger wine. Each level of criadera can be
thought of as levels of development and are also known as "scales".
Depending on market demand, the style of the wine and its characteristics, a fraction of the
wine (usually no more than 1/3 at a time) is removed from the solera level and bottled for sale.
The wine removed is then replaced by an equal amount of younger wine from the next criadera up,
which is called the first criadera. The wine in the first criadera is then replaced with even younger
wine from the second criadera. The youngest criadera is replenished with brand new wine. This
whole process is called "running of the scales".
There are essentially two types of Sherry - fino and oloroso. Fino sherries age biologically,
meaning they age under a film of yeast called "flor".Oloroso sherries age oxidatively with no flor.
The soleras for each type of sherry are a bit different.
Wine destined to become a fino sherry is chosen from the most delicate wines usually fermented
from free-run juice. They are fortified to about 15 - 15.5% abv. which is a bit lower than olorosos.
When the wooden sherry butts are filled with fino wine, they are not filled all the way up to allow
room for a blanket of film-forming yeast, called flor, to develop on the surface of the wine. The
development of the flor protects the wine from oxidation and also induces chemical reactions
creating distinctive aroma and flavour characteristics typical of fino and Manzanilla sherries.
Under the protection of the flor, the wine retains its freshness while gaining a matchless complexity.
In order to survive, the flor consumes essential nutrients in the wine. These nutrients eventually
become depleted causing the flor to die. Since the solera system involves the continual replenishing
of wine in each criadera, the vital nutrients the yeasts require are also replenished. To keep the
nutrients in the criaderas replenished, the running of the scales needs to take place more frequently
than in a solera containing oloroso wine. It also requires that there be more levels of criaderas -
sometimes up to 14 levels can be found. A properly managed solera system can allow the flor to
live for up to 10 years and sometimes more.
Wine destined to become olorosos are usually from later pressings and thus are higher in phenols
and a bit coarser in flavour. The wooden butts used in a solera containing oloroso wines are also
not filled all way. The extra room in the barrel is not to allow the development of flor (the wine
will have been fortified too high to allow the flor to develop), but to allow oxidative ageing to take place.
While the oloroso wine ages in the solera, it oxidizes and becomes more concentrated. It gains a darker
colour and develops a pungent flavour of nuts, prunes, and coffee from the long ageing process. Each
scale is stronger in alcohol than the one before it, and the proportion of esters and aldehydes, precursors
to the distinctive aromas and flavours of the wine, rises rapidly.
The Finished Wine?
It is impossible to give the exact age of a wine that has aged in a solera as it is a blend of many vintages.
There are some individual soleras in the bodegas of Jerez that are estimated to be about 100 years old.
It is only possible to give an approximate or an average age of the wine. A wine bottled from a solera
that was started ten years ago will have wine that is ten years old blended with wine that is three years
old. By law, Sherry must be at least 3 years old before it can be sold, but in reality most are much older
than that. Before it can be sold, the age of all Sherries must be assessed by a group of tasters from the
Consejo Regulador, the governing body of Sherry wine and vinegar, who will reject any wine it deems
to be too immature.
Soleras are an excellent method of subtly blending many vintages of wine together, while at the
same time, retaining the consistency and quality of the wine that enters the system.
In fact, solera systems have proven to be so successful that they have been adopted by producers of Brandy de Jerez,
and other fortified wines such as Malaga, Montilla, Madeira, Liqueur Muscat, and Liqueur Tokay from Australia.
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