For the past 70 years, Champagne Palmer & Co. has produced classic cuvées at the heart of Reims, but what’s lesser known is that for the past 40 years, the brand has been experimenting with an atypical technique for the Champagne world—Solera, or fractional blending.
“It allows us to reach harmony in our wines,” says Xavier Berdin, cellar master at Champagne Palmer & Co.
Originating from the Andalucia region in Spain, Solera was mainly used in the production of sherry to increase complexity by blending younger wines with aged vintages in cask. In the mid-19th century winemakers and brewers began adopting the process, yet, even as Solera gained popularity, only a handful of maisons across Reims embraced the method—Champagne Palmer & Co. being one of them.
“The goal is to obtain, year after year, an extraordinary library expressing a unique register of aromas and flavors,” says Berdin on the brand’s decision to work with three different Soleras. They include the red wine Solera used in Champagne Palmer & Co.’s Rosé Reserve cuvée, the Chardonnay Solera used in the reserve wines of Palmer Brut Reserve and the Pinot Noir Solera used in the blend of Palmer Blanc de Noirs.
“When we blend the different varieties, crus and reserve wines—we do so until we reach the perfect balance,” says Berdin. “First in oak casks (eight to 10 months in 15-year-old oak barrels from Burgundy), and second in stainless steel vats when we add the new vintage (about 20 percent) to the perpetual reserve.”
Though he was born and brought up within the wine industry—Berdin recounts his first memory with wine sitting on his grandfather’s lap during Christmas dinner who dipped his finger into a wine glass to try it—Berdin had yet to experiment with Solera until he arrived at Champagne Palmer & Co. in 2003. The unique opportunity permits Berdin to focus on his favorite part of the winemaking process—blending—in a completely innovative way.
“The principle is simple but requires great rigor during the vinification process. The challenge is to maintain the balance in the Solera,” says Berdin, prepared for the challenge. In regards to Champagne Palmer & Co.’s rosé cuvée, Berdin explains how the Pinot Noir Solera establishes its “delicately spicy notes.” He continues, “The blend is eternally self-perpetuating, with the older wines educating the young ones and the young wines nourishing the old. We could not achieve this without the Solera.”
As part of achieving these distinct notes, Berdin and his team of four oenologists organize a blind tasting every year in anticipation of refreshing the reserves with the latest vintages. This ensures the correct percentage of young wines are added each year, since every harvest varies.
This variation is one of the reasons why Berdin was first attracted to Champagne, “I have always been fascinated by this complex alchemy, specific to the Champagne region, consisting of matching vins clairs from different terroirs, varieties and years, each with its own unique expression.”
Along with this fascination, Berdin’s upbringing in a family of winemakers inspired him to pursue an oenology degree. “When I lost my father, who died too early, I was convinced that the world of winegrowing was the only enduring homage I could offer to perpetuate his memory,” says Berdin, who upon receiving his degree from Reims University went onto takeover his family estate in Chavot, while also securing his first cellar master position at the Martel Group, where he, “had free reign to create all of Maison Mansard-Baillet’s wines.”
While he continued operating the Chavot estate on the weekends, Berdin describes “an improbable chance encounter” with then cellar master of Champagne Palmer & Co. Jean-Claude Colson at the age of 28 years old. “I did not fully appreciate the quality of my interlocutor, I just recounted my origins, my devotion to my profession, my love of the region and love of traditional cooking,” says Berdin who has previously noted that if he wasn’t in winemaking he would be a chef. “At the end of the conversation, I finally realized that Mr. Colson was in charge of Champagne Palmer & Co. and a notorious epicurean…a few days later I was called up to join the team.”
To date, Berdin has yet to look back, saying that at Champagne Palmer & Co. he discovered his guiltiest pleasure, Champagne Palmer Blanc de Blancs with scallop carpaccio, an innovative winemaking style with Solera, and most importantly, his “raison d’être” [higher purpose].
Photos courtesy of Champagne Palmer & Co.