You may have encountered this word before. If you drink Sherry or Spanish Brandy, you almost certainly have. But what does it mean?
Let us first get some possible confusion out of the way. “Solera” is not to be confused with “Solaris”, which is both 1: a disease-resistant grape variety first created in Freiburg (and responsible for some of the best wines coming from a so-called hybrid, in my opinion) and 2: a critically-panned film starring George Clooney that was a remake of an apparently much better Soviet film from 1971.
What is a Solera?
The word solera indicates a system of ageing and serves, in Jerez, both as the name for the barrel containing the oldest wine in a single complete and functional unit of that system, as well as for the complete and functional unit itself.
Think of a stack of, say, at least five barrels each containing the same wine. The top barrel will contain the youngest vintage of that wine, while the bottom barrel, called the solera, contains the oldest. The barrel immediately above the solera is called the 1st scale in English, or 1st criadera in Spanish. The next barrel up is the 2nd scale or criadera. And so on. As you move up the stack, the wine in each barrel is younger than the one below, and older than the one above until you get to the top scale (the 4th criadera in my example) which contains fresh wine from the current vintage.
What is the Solera System?
The Solera System is a method used to smooth out vintage variation and maintain a particular style of wine, spirit or vinegar. This is achieved by the gradual blending of multiple vintages of base liquid, which are kept in individual barrels.
Think about that stack of barrels I just mentioned. You are filling a bottle of wine from the bottom barrel: the solera. Whatever amount of wine you remove from the solera (being careful never to remove more than a third of the contents of the barrel in any given year) is replaced with wine from the next barrel above it. That barrel is topped up from the next barrel above that, with fresh wine from the youngest vintage being added to the top barrel. And so on. After a few years in action, the resulting wine will be a complex blend of various vintages. This is the Solera System at work. The larger the number of barrels (and, therefore, vintages of wine in play), the more complex and the more consistent the resulting product will be.
The system itself is labour intensive, but simple. It takes a number of years for a Solera to reach equilibrium, but, afterwards, the resulting wine/spirit/vinegar is surprisingly consistent. The year of establishment of a Solera is often used as a date on the resulting product.
A Solera can consist of as few as three barrels to as many as 14 or more. Different barrels may have different kinds of wood to contribute different flavours to the final product. And no, the barrels don’t actually have to be in a stack. Most producers have many different Soleras, with many different scales kept, sometimes, in completely different buildings. With smaller operations, however, the barrels are generally stored close to each other.
Where is the Solera System Found?
If you can think of a barrel-aged liquid, you will find a producer that has tried the Solera system with it. But most often, it is found in Jerez, source of both Spain’s finest brandies and of its most underrated wine: Sherry. Here, the Solera System is standard practice for both Sherry and brandy production.
But there is another place where it is common: Emiglia-Romana, home of the world’s finest vinegar. The vinegars created by the artisanal producers of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena and, far less commonly, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia are rare, expensive, and follow the same practices for the ageing of their precious product as the fine Sherry and brandy producers of Jerez. These exquisite, unctuous, tradizionale fluids are not to be confused with the cheaper, industrial Aceto Balsamico di Modena, which is used for salad dressings around the world. And their price reflects that. Real balsamic vinegar made in the traditional way ain’t cheap.