The Solera Wine Aging System

The Solera Wine Aging System

Solera aging is a system developed by the Spanish and Portuguese and is used in the production of Sherry and Port. Not only is this system complicated in nature, it’s a lot of work and takes a long time to realize the benefits of using it. A solera system is comprised of several “solera rows” stacked on top of each other. Each row is made up of many barrels. Wine moves from the top most row to the bottom most row before being bottled over the period of several years. This system is also referred to as “fractional blending” which will make more sense soon. How Solera Aging Works Each solera row is a different stage in the process. The bottom layer is stage I, the last stage of the system. On top of stage I is the stage II solera row. This continues on up to the highest stage number on top which contains the youngest wine. Most soleras contain five stages, however, really fine Ports and Sherry wines may be aged in soleras with upwards of eight or nine stages. Let’s use an example to show how this works in practice. Suppose you and I are making Sherry together and we have a five stage solera. Each stage has ten 100 gallon barrels (1000 gallons). Yes that’s an odd size but the numbers will be easier this way. Every year we make 500 gallons of wine. As soon as this wine has finished fermenting and clearing we bottle 500 gallons of stage I wine, 50 gallons from each barrel. Remember stage I is the bottom layer. With the stage I stuff bottled we rack 500 gallons from the stage II barrels into the stage I barrels. After that we rack 500 gallons from the stage III barrels into the stage II barrels. This continues on until each stage V barrel is sitting there half empty. At this point we’ll rack last year’s 500 gallons of wine into the stage V barrels. Our solera is not completely full again. You never rack more than 50% of a barrel at one time. Some wineries will rack as little as 25% at a time. To make matters a little more complicated you don’t rack from one barrel straight into another barrel of the next stage. When we rack 50 gallons out of a single stage II barrel 5 gallons will go into each of the ten stage I barrels. Another way to do this would be to rack 50 gallons out of each stage II barrel into a large tank to allow them mix together before filling up the stage I barrels. This, of course, continues throughout each stage. Here’s a sketch of our solera to help you visualize this process. Read this from the bottom up. So now you can see why they call this fractional blending. A fraction of the wine that is racked out of a single barrel is fed into every other barrel. By doing this we are ensuring that the final product coming out of the stage I barrels is as uniform as possible. We...

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Aging Wine

After fermentation and racking comes probably the hardest part of making wine aging it. It’s one of those necessary evils of wine making. As a society we have trouble with delayed gratification and this will test your patience for sure. Why Age Wine Prior to Bottling? Aging prior to bottling is necessary for two reasons. The most notable reason is shaping the flavor with oak barrels or chips. Most every red wine and a few whites are aged in oak for the flavors and tannins it adds to the flavor profile. Another critical reason to age wines prior to bottling is to make sure all chemical reactions have completed. If wine is bottled while fermentation, malolactic fermentation, or any other chemical process is underway you’ll end up with a funky sparkling wine. Carbon dioxide created during these chemical reactions must go somewhere. In a fermenter it escapes through the air lock. In a bottle…it can’t escape. Because it can’t get out it will either blow out the cork or it will stay in the wine itself  as a liquid. Trapped carbon dioxide will turn to carbonation once opened. Creating sparkling wine sounds magical and all but if you didn’t intend to make this kind of wine its probably not going to taste very good. I’ve had a sparkling cabernet due to malolactic fermentation in the bottle and it was nasty stuff. Aging Vessels The most traditional and romantic aging vessel is the oak barrel. They look gorgeous all stacked up with little red stains dripping down. Despite their good looks oak barrels are a lot of work to maintain. In addition to increased maintenance barrels also have a life span of only 5-7 years. Very few wineries use a barrel beyond 7 years as it contributes nearly no oak flavor. Barrels are typically around 59 gallons and thus more suited for large scale productions (compared to an amateur wine makers needs). Half barrels of 29 gallons are available for the smaller scale maker. Another traditional vessel is the carboy. These look like those jugs on top of water coolers. Today carboys are available in both glass and food grade plastic. A word about plastic carboys…don’t. These flexible bottles are marketed as a safer alternative to glass carboys because they don’t shatter and cut you to pieces when they break. However, moving plastic carboys causes them to flex and pull air through the seals. If you can keep your plastic carboy in one spot without moving it you might have ok luck with it. However, I don’t believe in making wine in containers that come from petroleum products. You may feel differently. An older and less seen aging vessel is the concrete tank. Huge and heavy about sums it up. The newest aging container on the scene is the flex tank. Designed to micro-oxygenate wine similarly to a barrel yet have flexibility in size. Some tanks are flexible, others are rigid but have a floating top so that whatever the level of wine is it will always be covered. How Long to Age Wine Prior to Bottling This is a...

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