Updated: Jul 5, 2019
When we talk about Solera we think of Sherry; we think of the enormous bodegas in Jerez, endless rows of barrels stacked up on top of one another blending all those vintages, some going back more than 100 years. If you say Sherry-style wines made in France, you think of the Jura with their biological ageing, but what about Champagne?
I won’t spend too long explaining how a solera works; it’s essentially moving and mixing wine from different vintages between barrels. Some are over a hundred years old and contain traces of wine from when they were created. See drawing below.
There are four things that can be blended in winemaking:
1. Grapes varieties (eg. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir)
2. Geographical locations (eg. grapes from different vineyards)
3. Winemaking styles (eg. wine aged in a tank with wine aged in a barrel)
4. Vintage (eg. grapes harvested in different years)
All of the above happens in Champagne. The latter is important in maintaining a house style. Weather can differ enormously from year to year and so, in Champagne, winemakers will hold back some wine each year, with the sole intention of blending. It’s said that the better years are not blended, because they make better wine and thus seek higher prices, but Philippe Brun from Champagne Roger Brun tells me “blends are like photoshop - they make better wines - but if I put a year on the label I can sell it for more money.”
I first came across the concept of a solera being used in Champagne with Gallimard Pere et Fils who are based in Les Riceys, which is the southernmost part of Champagne. They also age their base wine for a short while in old oak barrels prior to bottling for the second fermentation. This micro-oxygenation makes the wine more savoury, more bruised appley, or as Philippe says “A child who touches dirt-”
“Fermenting and ageing wine in tanks is like the baby who never plays outdoors, never gets dirty and never touches animals, so when they go to school they get ill. Wines that don’t see any oak, will get ill very fast.”
When they hold back some of their wine, they keep it in oak barrels, but the barrels must be full, or the wine will spoil, so they fill the barrels with different vintages. All the small producers do it, they just don’t call it solera because they don’t see it as a selling point, just practical. Large houses can afford to keep their vintages separately, in tanks and they lose a lot of body and character in the process.
This is a long-winded story which concludes with a recommendation you buy Champagne made by small producers. It’s better, and usually cheaper too.