There are many pleasures to be had in Barcelona.
But not many people know that just 40 minutes by train from that city’s centre is a source of great happiness that travels around the globe. A place bubbling over with cheer – the largest sparkling wine facility in the world.
This is Spain. So we’re talking about cava.
Other areas of the country can call their wines cava but the Penedes Mountains is its heartland. This unique fresh and lively fizz is made from local grapes descended from vines brought by the Romans thousands of years ago.
Xarel-lo, macabeo and parellada.
The first thrives on the lower slopes and brings full body and ripeness, the second from the mid-range brings a refreshing acidity, and the third is grown at the highest levels (4-700m) and is low in alcohol and brings subtle aromatics.
You don’t have to remember all that, but the folk who work here know how they blend to enhance your pleasure.
Freixenet (pronounced fresh-ee-net) started way back in 1889.
As so often happens in the world of wine, two families saw the advantage of coming together. One owned land and vineyards, the other was a successful wine merchant. Pedro Ferrer had grown up in a small vineyard named La Freixenada meaning the ‘ash tree grove’ in Catalan.
The marriage prospered. In the 1930s they opened an office in New Jersey. Sadly, the senior men of the family were victims of Spain’s Civil War and Dolores Ferrer took on the winery’s responsibilities with three daughters and a son in 1940.
The world took to their lovely bubbles when Dolores introduced a white frosted bottle for the delicious Carta Nevada. The Cordon Nero in the sophisticated black bottle was introduced in the 1970s.
Since then a steady global expansion sees Freixenet now with 22 vineyards across three continents including properties in Bordeaux and Reims, Sonoma, Chile, Australia, Argentina and Mexico.
But here on their home ground Cava is King and the statistics are staggering.
On a recent visit we were lucky to be taken around by Toni Domenech Pujol their senior public relations man who grew up in this town and has been with the company all his working life. Fortunately for us he mastered English when he worked in Ireland.
We scribble rapidly on our tour as he presents the numbers.
Here are just a random few:
54 kilometres of caves over several levels. Around 15 hectares.
The vat cellar has forty 600,000 litre temperature controlled stainless steel tanks and six 1,200,000 litre tanks holding the young wine.
A robot places bottles in stacks of a million. Later another takes them out for riddling.
Riddling? An essential part of the traditional method of making good sparkling wine. The same as in Champagne. It’s where the bottle is slowly turned upside down while being gently shaken so all the sediment from the maturing process slides down into the neck. This process used to take 21 days by hand. Now just 6 days by machine. What do you do with an upside down bottle with a neck full of sediment? You disgorge it by freezing the neck and shooting out the plug of ice. You top it up then cork and wire it to keep in the precious bubbles from the secondary fermentation. You then lay them down for a minimum number of months depending on the quality level, for example 15 to 30 for Riserva.
There are three bottling lines capable of a million bottles a day for seven months of the year.
80% of these are exported.
It all sounds very impersonal, but the quality remains even at entry level. However the family also preserves much of the old crafting to make some truly magnificent wines.
On the deepest level we see some traditional practices in action. Hand-riddled, hand disgorged the Reserva Real (the Royal Reserve, and yes, the Spanish King attended the first tasting in 1987) can be aged for 4 to 5 years. And as you can see from the pictures some stocks are held for much longer.
Numbers are impressive, but the real reason we are here is for the taste. We first try the world’s favourite, the Cordon Negro, then the rare Trepat Pale Rose 2013 – a delightful mouthful, fine and crisp with a touch fuller flavor than a rose champagne. Over lunch we try one of their still wines, Albarinos 2014, elegant and refreshing. And then we are lucky to be served the Reserva Real. Rich with perceptible age but long and citrusy, sitting beautifully beside the turbot.
Our Freixenet tour was a little more extensive than most, but the regular tours are very interesting and rewarding which is why 100,000 visitors a year take advantage of them.
What you see in this home of bubbly activity is soon enjoyed all around the world.
Celebration anyone? For a taste go to www.freixenet.com