Thursday, April 17, 2014

Ten things you didn't know about Freixenet

Driving to the heart of the story in Penedès
Freixenet might be the best-known wine in the world. The Spanish company makes more than 100 million bottles of Cava each year, with more than half of it in the familiar black bottle of Cordon Negro Brut.

Most wine companies of its size are corporate. But Freixenet -- which owns 17 other wineries worldwide -- is still owned by the Ferrer family and run as a family business. I recently visited the company headquarters in Penedès, Spain, but I'm not going to try to tell you the Freixenet story per se. I'm just going to share 10 things I found interesting.

1. In the 1930s, company president Pedro Ferrer was executed in the Spanish civil war by Republican forces. Like most industrialists, Ferrer sided with Franco; had he not, he risked having his property seized. Instead, his execution order was signed by the short-lived president of Catalunya, who was later executed himself.

Freixenet decides which grapes to plant by elevation
2. Freixenet uses only one type of yeast to ferment all of three of the Spanish white grapes (Macabeo, Parellada and Xarello) that it uses for Cava. Freixenet F5 yeast was isolated in 1987, and has as much as anything to do with keeping 60 million bottles of Cordon Negro (which means "black ribbon") consistent every year.

3. "Cava" is, in my opinion, the worst-defined wine region in the world. It looks like an archipelago, or a rash, across far eastern Spain, with legal areas wherever big producers were making Cava when the name was passed in the 1980s. That happened because Spanish producers like Freixenet had been calling their wine "Champagne," but had to change when Spain joined the European Union in 1982. Producers eventually settled on the name "cava" because the wine is made in caves, but nobody wanted to tell existing big producers that they couldn't use the Cava designation for their wines from elsewhere. The great majority of Freixenet's wines come from Penedès, the main district of Cava, but they cannot use any subdesignation such as Cava-Penedès for political reasons.

4. Freixenet bought one of its biggest competitors, Segura Viudas, in the 1980s. Segura Viudas is not tiny, making 20 million bottles per year and like Freixenet, exporting nearly half its wine to the U.S. But the company uses separate distributors to sell the wine to U.S. restaurants, who don't want the familiar black bottle sold in supermarkets. Segura Viudas does have a separate winery, but the winemaking process and grape sources are similar.

5. Speaking of separate wineries, Freixenet recently introduced a kosher version, Excelencia Brut ($14), and built a winery just to make it, to avoid contamination with the gentile world. Many kosher wines have a stigma of inferiority, but to me, Excelencia is significantly more flavorful than the Cordon Negro: fresh, with a ripe apple flavor. It's made from 100% Xarello.

6. Perhaps this shouldn't be surprising, but Freixenet makes several outstanding reserve wines that are difficult to find in the US. Real Reserva is rich, toasty and complex and stands easily beside good Champagnes. Freixenet Vintage 2011 Brut Nature is smoky and savory with a long finish, a terrific value at $14. And the best of the lot, Casa Sala, is a freaky artisanal product, an attempt to duplicate many of the techniques from 150 years ago, including an authentic mammoth wooden press. The company declined to release vintages of Casa Sala from 2009 through 2012 because the quality wasn't up to snuff. But when it is good -- the '04 and '06 are outstanding -- it's complex, savory and salty on the finish, a great food wine that's fascinating. It's only about $40 US, so it's terrific value. The downside is that only about 15,000 bottles are made, and only about 300 make their way to the US.

Josep Bujan
7. Going the other direction technologically, the Ferrers gave technical director Josep Bujan carte blanche to create a red wine in a new winery built on an ancestral family house that they recently reacquired when a cousin who was not part of the wine industry died. Bujan took inspiration from Amarone and decided to cool the grapes in a refrigerator for two days at 2 degrees Celsius, then move about 30% of them to a hot, dry room for 10 days before fermenting the lot. The wine, called La Freixenada, is a blend of estate Garnacha and Cabernet Sauvignon. The first vintage is 2011, and it's very interesting, with a round mouthfeel that keeps its tannic power coiled. It's 14% alcohol, lower than most Amarones, and while it has plenty of fruit, it's not a fruit-driven wine. Bujan made only 8,000 bottles. "It was Jose (Ferrer)'s gift, after so many years making Cava, to let me have this little toy," Bujan said.

8. The Ferrers built their business in the 1800s by selling still wine to the countries in the Spanish empire in South and Central America. They were knocked back by two events: the coming of phylloxera to Spain in 1872, and the Spanish-American war, which took away some of their best markets. In 1914, they refocused on sparkling wine, which was in short supply in Spain, but their early experience made them export-oriented from the start.

9. In addition to founding Gloria Ferrer in Sonoma County in 1982, the Ferrers bought the 3rd oldest Champagne house Henri Abelé, in 1984. They thought people wouldn't take Cava as seriously if they didn't have a Champagne house.

Look closely and you can see Gloria Collel's picture on the label
10. The company is introducing a new line of cheaper, sweeter wines called Mia, including a pretty good still white blend made up of the traditional Cava grapes, and two Moscatos, one white and one pink. Winemaker Gloria Collel was instrumental in coming up with the concept for the wines, and her picture is on the back label. This is pretty surprising for a 3 million bottle brand considering that Collel is a relatively young employee and not a member of the family. I asked if the Ferrers were worried if she might leave for another company. "This came up in a meeting," she said. "People said, 'Gloria can leave.' Pedro Ferrer looked at me and said, 'But you're not going to leave, are you?' " Family business.

(This story originally ran on Wine Review Online.)

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


kschlach said...

You, of course, mean northeastern Spain...

W. Blake Gray said...

Not really, Cava is south of some of the key wine regions, though Spain does dip much further south. "A rash near Barcelona" might be ideal phrasing.

kschlach said...

Do you know where Barcelona is in Spain?

Yes, Cava regions are all over Spain. Some near Portugal. Some near Valencia. Some in Rioja! The major portions are in Penedes, near Barcelona. That part of Spain is called Catalonia. That is the NE part of Spain.

W. Blake Gray said...

Nice shirt, Kyle.

kschlach said...

Nice glasses, Blake.

It is ok to just admit that you're wrong. I'm not trying to start an argument, just wanted to point out small geographical error on your part. The majority of Cava regions are in the northeast part of the country, not the southeast part.

If you avoid that fact, I will continue to point it out!

Have you even looked at a map of Spain and where the designated Cava regions are located? And, what does, "though Spain does dip much further south" even mean when you're talking about the location of designated Cava regions within Spain?

Bob Henry said...


Accessing Wine-Searcher, I find no wine merchant listing for Casa Sala in the States:

That'll be a real Easter Egg hunt for the doggedly persistent.

Question: do they sell it in the tasting room at Gloria Ferrer in Sonoma?

~~ Bob

Bob Henry said...


And speaking of Gloria Ferrer, I haven't seen their "Royal Cuvee" for some time.

Longer aged on the yeast for added complexity, I found it to be delightful domestic sparkler. Consistently a "best value" wine.

Any insights into the continuation of this program?

Unknown said...

It's gotta be tough. He goes, researches, writes a good, informative article just for someone try to start an argument over East or Northeast... It's pretty obvious that anyone reading a wine blog knows where Barcelona is!

W. Blake Gray said...

Thank you Laura.

Frank Bruni did a great story for the New York Times a few years ago in which he spent a week undercover as a waiter. He wondered why some patrons nitpicked and complained about every aspect of the meal, and one of his fellow servers said, "Some people go out to eat for the experience of being disappointed."

ryan said...

I lived in Catalonia for 8 years. We didn't refer to it as Northern Spain, that is reserved for Cantabria, Asturias, Basque country. Catalonia is eastern, but not thought of as "northern spain".

Beyond that, Freixenet makes some great wines. But I would love to see an article on how their monopoly with Codorniu has strangled the Cava industry. Nothing happens with sparkling wine in Spain without their approval. The DO is not independent and now we see producers like Raventos i Blanc trying to leave and carve a new niche.