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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How Oak Affects Wine

How Oak Affects Wine

Oak, also known as the winemakers spice cabinet. It affects wine not only the flavor of wine but its chemistry as well. It is important to understand that not all oak is the same. Different Oaks for Different Folks I’m sorry I couldn’t resist that. It is true though. Oak from different countries impart different flavors and textures to the wine it comes in contact with. This is why you see French and American barrels and oak chips at wine making shops. The two most popular types are French and American, however, there are many other places that supply winemakers as well. Hungary is one of the more popular ones outside the U.S. and France. French oak is more tame and subtle while American oak, like Americans, tend to be pretty bold. To be more specific, French oak has a finer grain with smaller voids (air space). This keeps the wine from penetrating very deeply into the oak thus reducing the surface area that the wine has contact with. This results in a smoother, subtle oak flavor. American oak, on the other hand has a looser grain that allows more interaction with the wine as it can penetrate deeper into that grain. Increased surface area allows for more extraction of flavors and tannins from the oak. Here are the four main impacts oak can have on wine. As you’ll see oak flavor is only one of the four. Evaporation The average 59 gallon barrel allows 5.5-6.5 gallons of wine evaporate per year. This is why wineries have to top up their barrels so much and why they smell so good! As wine evaporates is the water and alcohol that are lost, this concentrates the flavors and aromas. The water and alcohol that is lost is replaced with additional wine which introduces more flavor and aroma compounds. You can see how this would add up, especially for a red wine that is barrel aged for three years. Micro-Oxygenation This is a big one. Just as the barrels allow water and alcohol to evaporate out of the barrel, oxygen is also allowed in. However, only in very small quantities. While too much oxygen is obviously a bad thing the tiny amounts gained through micro-oxygenation is just enough to help the wine mature. Without this additional oxygen the wine can still mature, however, it takes much much longer to achieve similar results. Phenol Interaction Phenols are compounds found in the grape and the oak that make up the flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel of a wine. There are hundreds of different phenols in a typical wine. Most come from the grapes but oak can also impart some of its own. These phenols can combine to form new flavor and aroma compounds. One common compound created is vanillin which, as you might have guessed, gives wines a vanilla flavor. Fermenting wine in the barrel, or with oak chips, can also give rise to new compounds or at least modified compounds. As the yeast work their magic they process phenols from the grape juice and the oak, combining them to form new compounds, i.e. new flavors and aromas...

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Bottle Aging Wine

Once bottled wine needs to be stored in optimal conditions to preserve its life and keep it tasting as wonderful as possible. The three factors affecting wine being aged in a bottle are temperature, light, and humidity (depending on your closure). Red vs White Wine Bottle Aging Red wines benefit the most from long term aging because of the tannins. Over time the tannins join together and form long chains. This smooths out the wine and gives it that silky smooth mouthfeel only an aged red has. Some of the tannin chains get so long they precipitate out, giving the wine a mature feel.   White wines are not usually bottle aged very long. There are exceptions to this, however, most white wines are meant to be consumed within three years or so. Champagne is a notable exception to this rule. Temperature Ideally wine should be stored at 55 deg F. This slows the micro-oxygenation process down and allows the wine to mature gradually. Warmer temperatures speed up the aging process. In theory you could simulate a 100 years of bottle aging by storing it at 80 deg F, however it doesn’t quite work out this nicely. You miss out on all the long chain tannins and the aging process is so abrupt that the wine doesn’t mature as much as it just goes bad. If you can’t store your wine at 55 deg F at least store it as cool as you can. Not all of us have underground cellars or refrigerators for bottle aging wine though. Realize that your wine may have a shorter shelf life if you can’t keep it that cold. Light Wine should be stored in a nice dark place. Ultra-violate light from the sun or florescent lights can damage wine as much as heat can. Darker bottles do help protect wine from these rays, however, if you’re planning on bottle aging a wine for years and years it needs to completely protected from UV light. Humidity Cork closures require a specific range of humidity for long term storage. When corks dry out due to a lack of humidity they shrink and can leak or be pushed out of the bottle entirely. If your storage area has too much humidity your corks can grow mold and introduce nasty flavors to your wine. Keep your cork enclosed wine between 55 and 75% humidity to avoid drying of the cork as well as growing mold. If this isn’t something you can manage you may want to consider going with a synthetic cork or screw cap to avoid the issue altogether. You probably already know this but you should be storing wine enclosed with natural corks on their side. This prevents the cork from drying out from the inside. This is not an issue with synthetic corks or screw caps. Pay attention to these three factors and you can expect great results. Let any one of these get out of hand and your wine could be ruined. Not All Wines Age Gracefully Aging wine is a science. Certain characteristics must be present in your wine for it...

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