“An unusually fine solera…51, I believe”

“There is no year for Sherry 007”

“I was referring to the original vintage to which the sherry is based, sir… 1851, unmistakable” 

Verbatim between James Bond and M in Diamonds are Forever, it has to be the greatest tasting feat of the Bond saga (Bond recognising the temperature of a glass of sake as being 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit coming in a close second). To recognise a 120-year-old solera from a casual sip is superhuman. Even the great nose of Jerez - José Ignacio Domecq González – who’s tasting abilities were legendary would not have been so assertive. 

What makes Bond’s feat so heroic and what exactly is a solera? Invented in Sanlúcar de Barrameda in the 18th Century, the solera system has been a method by which bodegas in the Appellation of Jerez have been able to make stable and characterful wines in an array of styles. 

solera system

There are 2 ageing systems in Jerez, the vintage (añada) and the solera system. The former is a static method common in wine making in general. The second is a dynamic system specific to the Appellation of Jerez. During the añada phase the capataz (oenologist) is able to evaluate the wine and move the wine to the appropriate solera. This is where the Finos and Manzanillas are destined for biological aging and the Olorosos are added to a solera designed for oxidised ageing (or barrel-ageing). 

The solera system is often depicted as a pyramid of barrels (botas) as in the diagram above. Each solera has a certain number of scales or tiers, each made up of a certain number of botas. The first tier is where the youngest wine is added, taken from the static system (añada wine known as sobretabla). To make room for the new wine, a determined quantity is drawn off and added to the 2nd tier. The exercise of topping up a space created in the tier is known as rocios whilst the term for removing the wine and creating a void in the tier is called a saca.  The frequency and quantity of sacas and rocios, coupled with the number of tiers, is the very essence of the blend within the dynamic system as these variables influence the duration of the ageing process. 

In the same way that there are 2 ageing systems there are also 2 main soleras – biological and oxidative. The biological solera is the home of Finos and Manzanillas (and Amontillados for a time, which I’ll come on to).  Biological wines are aged under a layer of yeast called flor (see article on flor for more details). The flor covers the wine with a sealed-film which protects the liquid from oxidisation. At the same time a metabolic inter-action is taking place between the flor and the wine which give Finos and Manzanillas their inimitable characteristics. 

For the flor to flourish and survive the solera provides two essential factors: firstly, the sobretabla (or añada wine) adds essential nutrients to the bota. The young wine refreshes the solera and provides sustenance for the flor to survive. Secondly, the blending of the wine – or rocio – adds oxygen to the bota allowing the flor to “breath”. Without the rejuvenation of nutrients and oxygen the flor would diminish and the cover would be broken. 

In the second system - the oxidative solera (or what we like to call barrel-aged solera) – the wine is matured without a film of flor and interacts with bota and air. These soleras produce several styles including Oloroso, Palo Cortado as well as PX and the blends (Mediums and Creams). Again, adding wine to the various tiers replenishes oxygen in the solera which accelerates the maturation process. Amontillados are the only style that see both biological and barrel-ageing as they start out in the biological solera until the bota is re-evaluated as being better suited to a barrel-aged solera. 

There is no sense in explaining how Bond could have known what he knew, but from experience most astounding tasting feats of this kind are usually fairly prosaic when explained – on entering the room a quick glance at the drinks cabinet usually does the trick.