The Perpetual Blend: Champagne’s Solera System

Posted by | Posted in Wine Education | Posted on 08-12-2013

For millennia, winemakers have been utilizing a unique system of maturation for Sherry, the famous fortified wine of the Jerez region of Spain. Called the solera system, the process involves removing wine for release from the last of a series of barrels that contains a blend of every vintage since the solera was started. The void in those barrels is then filled with wine from another series of barrels, and so on, until there is room in the youngest series of barrels. The wine from the most recent vintage is added to those barrels.

The solera system in Sherry production.

The solera system in Sherry production.

The solera system is a way of ensuring consistency — the wine that is finally taken out of the last series of barrels should be of the same style and quality every time. In addition, as new wine is added to the system, it takes on the characteristics of the older wine with which it becomes blended. Consequently, the world’s greatest Sherries are complex and high quality year after year.

There’s another wine region in the world where the goal is consistently excellent wine with every release: Champagne. Can Champagne utilize the solera system for its non-vintage cuvées? It turns out that some producers do, in certain ways, but the practice is far from widespread.

The perpetual blending system is a method of storing the reserve wines of a Champagne house in a single cuvée, usually only one large barrel or tank. After each harvest is complete, the wine is added to the blend, and every time the producer is ready to release a new batch of non-vintage Champagne, he removes what he needs. Over time, the cuvée becomes increasingly complex — the fresh wines of the latest vintage taking on the mature qualities of those that came before it.

It would seem to make a ton of sense to utilize a perpetual blending system for non-vintage Champagne, but surprisingly few producers actually do so. Five years ago, noted Champagne writer Peter Liem asked why there aren’t more soleras in Champagne. Today, there aren’t many additional producers employing the process, so I set out to see if I could find some answers.

Claude Corbon blends 50 percent of the base year wine with older reserves from a perpetual blend to create its Cuvée Prestige (a perpetual blend is also used to make Corbon’s high-end Brut d’Autrefois). Pierre Péters started a perpetual blend in 1997, and it makes up roughly 40 to 50 percent of the non-vintage Cuvée de Réserve (the balance being from the most current vintage).

Rodolphe Péters told me that he decided in 1997 to blend together 100% of his reserve tanks, which consisted of vintages 1988, 1990, 1993, 1995 and 1996. Starting with the 1997 vintage, Péters added 50-60% of his total production to the perpetual reserve, and he has done so in almost every vintage since; the current blend includes more than 15 different vintages. He says that this makes the blend “much more complex and interesting in texture and structure.”

For Péters, the decision was simple. He explains that, “to build a non-vintage with a consistent style and of top quality,” a producer “must have a big proportion, and a good base of, vin de reserve.” To him, it is much easier “to keep a big volume of one non-vintage blend than to keep a big volume of the best wines of the year [which, of course, primarily are used for the vintage cuvées].”

Like Pierre Péters, Vazart-Coquart’s Brut Réserve is made up of 25-30 percent reserve wine from a perpetual blend started in 1978. Laherte Frères, whose Les 7 is also unique in that it includes seven different grape varieties from a field blend of a single parcel planted in 2003, uses approximately 40 percent reserve wine. The Fidèle from Vouette et Sorbée uses even less wine from the house’s perpetual blend—three to seven percent—which was started in 2001. Edmond Barnaut in Bouzy also utilizes perpetual blending.

Raphaël Bérêche with his oak casks

Raphaël Bérêche with his oak casks

Bérêche et Fils is one of a handful of producers who makes a wine entirely out of a perpetual blend. Jean-Pierre Bérêche started the system for the Reflet d’Antan in 1985, and approximately two-thirds is removed each year from the 600-liter demi-muids [large oak barrels] in which it is stored. Jean-Pierre’s son, Raphaël, who is in charge of the winemaking now, told me that it was a natural decision to use a perpetual blending system. But, he explained, the reason more producers don’t do so is “because it’s too much risk.” According to Bérêche, the system needs “a lot of attention.”

The risk, unfortunately, can manifest itself in ultimately flawed wines. Champagne expert Brad Baker found that H. Billiot Fils’ perpetual blend, which is used for the prestige cuvée, Laetitia, began to show signs of volatile acidity. That blend was started around 1983, and includes only the best vintages. Nonetheless, according to Baker, somewhere around the 2011 disgorgements, the wine became a “VA fest[] with lots of apple cider and nail polish/paint thinner.” As it turns out, Billiot split the perpetual blend tank in two around 2006, causing the VA to become more prominent. Baker says that the house has since gone back to a single tank, but that it “is likely going to take a while for this wine to get back on track.”

Problems and risks aside, some perpetual blends in Champagne are legendary. Perhaps the most famous are made by the grower house of Jacques Selosse. Since 1995, Selosse’s Contraste (now called La Côte Faron) — made from 100% Pinot Noir from a single vineyard — has been crafted from a system even closer to a solera. Selosse’s system has one blend from which he pulls the current release, and another that he uses to replenish the last, and to which he adds the most recent vintage (in Sherry, they would call these two criaderas). Selosse’s single vineyard Les Carelles, from Le Mesnil, similarly is a mini-solera of 100% Chardonnay.

Aside from Selosse, few others are experimenting with perpetual blends. Raymond Boulard’s Cuvée Petraea indicates on the label (in Roman numerals) the span of years contained in the perpetual blend. According to Peter Liem, Boulard stopped his blend in 2007 and began a new one using only organic grapes.

So what is keeping more Champenoise from using a solera-like system? It could be the risk, as Raphaël Bérêche explained. Or perhaps it’s the expense. As Liem noted, “Wine held in reserve is wine that isn’t making you any money.” But as Rodolphe Péters explained, it’s certainly more practical to keep one big tank than the many dozens of individual reserve wines, and have to go through a lengthy process of re-tasting every year. For my money, the results of the Champagne I’ve tasted that utilize a perpetual blend are well worth the effort and risk, and it is a method that is ripe for exploration by more Champagne grower-producers.

Bérêche et Fils Reflet d’Antan (2008 base; disgorged 10/2012; 6g/L dosage) – This wine has a beautiful pale rose gold color. It has a clean, moderately intense nose of bruised golden apples, baking spice and autolytic characteristics. The Champagne is dry, with ample acidity, nice body, and wonderful flavors of apple, caramel, nutmeg and lees. It finishes long, with a refreshing burst of minerality. Unique and lovely, the wine gives much pleasure even shortly after release due to the mature components it acquired from the perpetual blend. Excellent. (Note: tasted multiple times with consistent notes.)

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