Ever Wonder? - The Solera System of Winemaking


Last time we learned that Marsala wine is not just for cooking. It’s actually a fortified wine that is sometimes made using the Solera system.

A Solera is a system used for blending wines and is a way of keeping a consistent style of wine for years.

The diagram illustrates the system as a stack of barrels with the oldest barrels of wine on the bottom and the youngest barrels of wine on top.

Wine is bottled from the barrels on the bottom, but these barrels are never drained more than part-way. After being partially drained for bottling, the bottom row of barrels is refilled with wine from the row above, and those are filled with the wine from the barrels above them. And so on until the newest vintage enters the top row and begins its aging journey down through the system, being blended each year by the winemaker.

Since the barrels are never completely drained, the oldest barrels on the bottom always contains some of the original vintage used in the Solera.

The Solera system is not only used for Marsala wines, but also for other fortified wines such as Port. And, this can also be used in the production of non-vintage sparkling wines. So, if you’ve ever wondered how a winery can produce such a consistent non-vintage product year-after-year, they may be using some form of this system.


Fortified Wine: A Further Look at Port

Last time we discussed fortified wines - wines with added alcohol. And Port is one of the classic fortified wines. 

From Portugal, this is a sweet fortified wine that was originally created so that it could be put on-board ships in Oporto Portugal and transported to London without spoiling. The high alcohol level (~20% ABV) acted as an excellent preservative. Soon the Oporto style of wines became known to the world as Port.

Port is made from indigenous Portuguese grapes. And while there are more than fifty grapes that fall into that category, the primary grapes used to produce Port are Touriga Franc, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão.  Also note that to be called Port, it must be made in Portugal.

Styles of Port include:

  • Tawney Port: Blended, sweet, and amber-brown in color, this Port is barrel aged 2 to 40+ years. Tawny Ports tend to have nutty aromas and caramel flavors from natural oxidation in the cask.
  • Colheita: A single vintage Tawney Port, aged 10+ years. This Port is bottled only when the producer decides it is ready to drink, and should be enjoyed in the following year or so. The label should carry both the vintage and the bottling date.
  • Ruby Port: This style of Port is widely produced and aged just 2 to 3 years before being bottled. These Ports are meant to be enjoyed young. Aging is done in cement or steel tanks to prevent oxidization so the Port retains its fresh, fruity qualities. Because it is filtered (and sometimes pasteurized) before bottling, Ruby Ports do not improve with bottle age.
  • White Port - White Ports are blended together using a large number of grape varieties. The most commonly used varieties include Bical, Cerceal, Donzelinho Branco, Gouveio, Malvasia Fina, Rabigato, and Viosinho. White Port is often lost in the mix by the better-known styles of Port but it is not rare or expensive, just not as widely distributed.
  • Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port: This is Ruby Port from a single year, chosen for its high quality and bottled after aging for four to six years in wood. It is released ready to drink.
  • Vintage Port: This is the highest quality single vintage Port. It is wood aged for two years before being bottled.  This Port matures well in the bottle transforming into a smooth, mellow wine that is rich and wonderfully aromatic.  Not just any year can be used to produce a Vintage Port. The major Port producers must declare it.  Typically three or four years out of a decade have harvests worthy of being called Vintage Ports. Recent vintage years were 1994, 1995, 1997, 2000 and 2003.

A Port glass is usually smaller than a regular wine glass and a serving size is around 3-ounces. It should be served just below room temperature, around 60 degrees F. So skip that dessert on a plate or in a bowl and enjoy a glass of Port for your next dessert. And try it with blue cheese and salted or smoked nut!  Cheers!

What is a Fortified Wine?

You may have heard of "Fortified" wine and wondered what it is. Or, wondered if it really is wine?

Simply put, fortified wine is wine to which additional alcohol has been added. And its origin comes from the days when wine spent considerable time being shipped at sea. It was found that adding additional alcohol to the wine acted as a preservative, allowing the wine stay fresher longer. 

Today fortified wines are produced in one of two ways. The first method involves the addition of alcohol (typically grape brandy which is distilled, not fermented) during a wine's fermentation process.  When added during fermentation, the alcohol will kill the remaining yeast before it gets a chance to consume all the natural sugar in the grape juice.  With the residual sugar in the grape juice, this results in a fortified wine that is sweet. The second method has the additional alcohol added after the wine is fermented, producing a dry fortified wine. One way or the other, fortified wines end up being 15-20% alcohol by volume (ABV).

Examples of fortified wines include:

  • Port - From Portugal, this is a sweet fortified wine. The name was originally derived from the Portuguese city of Oporto where wines were shipped.  Styles of port include:
    • Tawney Port: Aged 2 to 40+ years
    • Ruby Port: Aged 2 to 3 years then bottled. Meant to be enjoyed young
    • Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV) port:  Single vintage bottled after 4 to 6 years
    • Vintage Port: The highest quality single vintage port that is wood aged for 2 years
  • Sherry - From Spain's Andalucía region. Two basic styles of Sherry:
    • Fino: Light and dry with alcohol levels of 15-16%
    • Oloroso: Oxidation makes this style deep brown in color, with higher alcohol levels (18-20%). Often sweetened and colored for variation. Also available as a cream Sherry
  • Marsala - From Sicily, this wine can be sweet or dry. It is produced through repeated heating and oxidation cycles.  Although Marsala is most often thought of as a cooking wine, the higher quality Marsala wines are meant to be enjoyed as a fine wine.  Quality levels include:
    • Fine: Aged for 1 year. Typically a cooking wine
    • Superior: Aged for 2 years
    • Superior Reserve: Aged for 4 years
    • Virgin (or Solera): Aged for 5+ years
    • Virgin Stravecchio Reserve: Aged for 10+ years
  • Madeira - From the island of Madeira, this can be dry or sweet, blended or single varietal. Like Marsala, this wine is repeatedly heated during production. Two main types:
    • Blended:
      • Reserve: Aged 5+ years
      • Special Reserve: Aged 10+ years
      • Extra Reserve: Aged 15+ years
    • Single Varietal:
      • Colheita: Aged 5+ years
      • Frasqueira: Aged 20+ years
  • Vermouth - Made from white wine that is then infused with herbs, fruits, and spices. There is no official, legal definition of vermouth, and no regulation controlling which grapes are used in its production.  Vermouth can be dry or sweet. A typical sweet vermouth contains somewhere between 10-15% sugar that is added during the production process. Dry versions, which are lighter bodied, usually have less than 5% sugar.

While these fortified wines are often served as an apéritif before or after a meal, they are different from dessert wines. In future posts we'll address some of these fortified wines in more detail and discuss dessert wines. For now, cheers!