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Fizzing with Freixenet

by Tom Cannavan, 04/10

Try to visualise 200 million bottles. Too big to get a mental picture? Let's start with just 1,000 then - how far the bottles would stretch if laid out in one long line. Multiply that line 200,000 times and the annual production of Spanish Cava giant Freixenet and its wholly-owned second label, Segura Viudas, is truly mind-blowing.

Freixenet takes its name from the old family home of the Ferrer family, 'La Freixeneda', which means "where the ash trees grow." Indeed one of the astonishing things about this enormous company - the biggest sparkling wine producer in the world - is that it is still owned by the Ferrer family.

Freixenet's huge facility in the small town of Sant Sadurni d’Anoia, just a few kilomteres from Barcelona, has the surface area of around 15 football pitches - but then it is also eight levels deep under the chalky soils of this corner of Penedes.   

I visited Freixenet in 2010 to attend a special Cava and food-matching lunch, and also to celebrate the launch of their new Chardonnay and Pinot Noir-based sparkling wine called Elyssia. But Freixenet's story was not built on these French varieties, but on the traditional local Cava grapes Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel.lo. Those are the varieties still closest to the company's heart. As Graham Fortune, MD of Freixenet UK says, "We believe in the native grape varieties - if I go to Italy I don't want to eat French, I want to eat Italian." So the decision to make a cuvée from Pinot and Chardonay - both originally planted in 1991 for a still wine project - represents a big step for the company.

The name Cava only came into use when Spain joined the EU in the 1980's: before then it was known locally as Champagne, and internationally as 'Spanish Champagne' or just Spanish sparkling wine. Over 90% of Cava comes from the Penedes region around Barcelona, but surprisingly perhaps, Cava is also permitted and made in various other Spanish regions including Rioja and Badajoz near the Portugeuse border.

Freixenet has its own vineyards, but also an enormous family of 1,200 growers and cooperatives with whom Freixenet works closely, supplying its own yeasts and viticultural and winemaking support. Their enormous tank farm of 600,000 and 1.2 million-litre tanks is impressive enough, but it was a visit to their yeast farm that made my jaw drop:

   Freixenet has own unique yeast, reproduced every month from this laboratory (pictured left) to keep it in perfect condition and avoid mutations. The realities of a 200-million-bottle production hit home when you see this extraordinary facility that services just one small, but vital part of the operation.

As with Champagne, yields are high as the base wine needs to be quite neutral - around 10 tons per hectare. The Pinot and Chardonnay are harvested first in early August, picked by machine and pressed at night when the temperature cools.

Harvesting of the indigenous grapes begins with Macabeo at the end of August - the grape giving acidity and finesse - followed by Xarel.lo which gives structure and body and then finally, Parellada with its naturally lower alcohol. Freixenet carry out two pressings: the first gives the finest juice for premium products, the second at stronger pressure gives very good juice, but the remaining juice from further pressings - around 40% of the grape's volume - is sold off. Cava has lower acidity than Champagne, so the dosage added to sweeten the wine after disgorgement is normally a little lower than in Champagne.

I was surprised when Graham Fortune named France as the fastest-growing market for Freixenet Cava, where it is stealing market share from the AOC sparkling wines - crémants, etc. The UK remains a hugely important market though, where - excluding Champagne - around 55% of all sparkling wine sold in retail is Cava and where volume is growing 5% per annum. "Until now the natural barrier for Cava has been £10," says Graham, "But with Champagne getting cheaper and many of the £15 bottles disappointing, we think there is a gap for Cava." At £17.99 that is exactly where the new Elyssia cuvées are pitched.

the tasting

This tasting covered both Freixenet's sparkling wines (including the new Elyssia cuvées of course) but also some still wines from their operations in Rías Baixas, Ribera del Duero and Priorato. See all stockists of Freixenet on wine-searcher.com.

Freixenet's Cavas and sparkling wines

Freixenet, Elyssia Pinot Noir NV
85% Pinot, 15% Trepat. 12 months on the lees. Frarant rose and strawberry scents, a touch of something herbal and nettly. Palate has a fine creaminess, more of cherry and strawberry fruit, but there's a lovely acidity and structure, the finish quite long and finely balanced, with a hint of Pinot truffles. 90/100

Freixenet, Elyssia Gran Cuvée NV
Chardonnay, Macabeo, Paralleda and some Pinot Noir. More herbal aromas, with some classic Cava notes of apple and herbs. Very fresh. The palate has an impression of being just off-dry, with a flood of lemony acidity, and some biscuit notes in the finish. 89/100

Freixenet, Brut Vintage 2007
Nettles and bruised apple fruit, and nicely yeasty character. Deliciouisly tangy lemony acidity. Tastes very dry, with a pithiness and orange and lemon pith character that makes it very drinkable and delicious with some Parmesan cheese. 88/100
  

Freixenet, Cordon Negro Brut NV
Yeasty, banana and tanky aroms, a touch rubbery too perhaps. Really fresh on the palate, with delicious, soft, yielding pear and aplle fruit that it softer than the Elyssia and very easy to drink with a fresh, lightly orangy and spicy finish. 86/100

Freixenet, Cordon Negro Vintage 2007
Lovely nose, with some brioche and a touch of banana and pear fruit. The palate is dry and very mineral and salty, with a great deal of finesse: clean, fresh and deliciously moreish. 89/100

Freixenet, Cordon Rosado NV
Trapet and Garnacha. Light, fresh, red berry fruits, with a cool, pure, lemony vinosity and obvious freshness. Lots of raspberry freshness and a deliciously clean, tart, cherry and raspberry finish. 88/100

Freixenet, Reserva Real NV
Contains 20% of reserve wines, aged in the cellars under cork, not screwcap. Big, buttery, rich nose with some estery banana note and lots of power. The flavour has bold, ripe, buttery fruit with plenty of ripeness and cool, melony acidity. Lovely finish, very long and pure. 89/100

Freixenet, Malvasia Dessert Cava 2001
Fantastic and weirdf stuff, the dosage coming from Malvasia held in barrels under a solera system, the barrels oxidised and sherried, giving this the nose of an Oloroso sherry with some butter and rich, waxy notes. The palate has a custard and stewed apple sweetness, with delightful buttery texture and a long, fine finish with good acidity. 91/100

Freixenet, Cordon Negro Medium Dry
Fairly neutral nose, with a touch of custard and some pear and apple fruit. The palate has a sweetness that's apparent though to the finish, with orange and ripe, sweet pear. Not hugely long, and for me slightly disjointed, but an appealing style for some. 86/100

still wines

Vionta Albariño 2008
Fascinating nose, with some tropical fruit and lots of glacé fruit notes, angelica and some toffee aromas. The palate is dry but quite rich, the fat, lemony fruit with hints of lime and dry herby tang to the finish. 88/100

Fra Guerau, Montsant Rosé 2008
Syrah, Merlot and Tempranillo. Very aromatic, with rose-hip and cherry, and lifted notes of flowers and delicate spices. The palate has a dry, cherryish flavour with some sweetness on the mid-palate before a very fresh, cool finish. Deliciously drinkable - dangerous at 14%. 86/100

Valdubon, Honoris Ribera del Duero 2005
100% Tinot de Pais (Tempranillo) from very old grapes. Very, very ripe and plush, with hugely spicy and tobacoo-rich, vanillin and black berry fruit. Huge palate too, the sweetness of the oak and the spicy, deep berries. The palate has a nice sweetness, with ripe tannins and a lot of chocolaty density. Very plush and sweet, and whilst I am not sure I could drink a bottle, impressive. 89/100

Morlanda, Priorat 2005
50/50 Garnacha and Carignena. Tight, grippy red fruit. Bloody and gamy, with a graininess and intriguing grip. The palate has lovely flesh and silkiness, the tannins coating the mouth with a great core of slightly leaner, gamy and savoury charcter, a chocoilaty depth beneath. 90/100

Valdubon, Reserva Ribera del Duero 2004
100% Tempranillo. 21 months in oak, French and American, and 16 months in bottle. Oak here seems better integrated, with a creamy, spicy, tobacco note. Lots of char and toast. I like the balance on the palate more here, the juicness and the savoury note persisiting and giving lovely tang and mouthwatering finish. 91/100

Morlanda, Blanco 2008
Garnacha Blanco (85%) and Macabeo. One third fermented in barrels, one third with skins and one third in steel. Melon and pear fruit, with a sense of minerality and a certain skinny, salty grip. Really nice, sweet palate with delightful freshness and a long, cool finish. 89/100

See all stockists of Freixenet on wine-searcher.com.