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January 22, 2014

Freixenet: World's biggest selling sparkling wine, from where?

EXTERIOR of the historic Cavas Freixenet Winery in Spain,
with one the company's fleet of quirky-shaped promotional
vehicles – this one the shape of a bubbly bottle.  (Wikimedia)
FREIXENET BOTTLES THE SPARKLE OF LOVE
David Ellis

WHEN Dolores Sala Vive and Pedro Ferrer Bosch fell madly in love in the early 1900s, little did they realise that the sparkle they would bring into each other's lives would reach out with even more engulfing sparkle to millions of others in some 150 countries around the globe.

For Dolores was from Spain's 19th century Casa Sala winemaking family and Pedro from friendly rival La Freixenada whose history dated back to the 13th century, and within a decade they would be making not just wine, but their very own cavas – Spanish sparkling wines – of a quality that would amaze the world.

So much so in fact, that over the next 100 years theirs would become the biggest-selling bubblies in the world, with sales of over 200-million bottles a year – including 250,000 of those in far-off Australia alone.

But sadly Dolores and Pedro did not have the time they deserved together to enjoy their successes:  Pedro and the couple's eldest son were killed during the 1930s Spanish civil war, leaving Dolores to nurture their young company and raise her four other children single-handedly.

They had called their company Freixenet (pronounced fresh-Annette) and on the death of her husband Dolores surprised the industry with her oenological skills, something unusual for a woman at the time. And equally unusually, she appointed herself head of the company board, presiding over it until her death at 89 years of age in 1978 when her eldest living son, José took over the reins to lead Freixenet to even more mind-boggling heights.

Today the fascinating Cavas Freixenet winery in the town of Sant Sadurni in the heart of the Penedes winemaking region of Spain, and about 45km south-west of Barcelona, attracts 90,000 visitors annually.

And they're not disappointed: the old part of the extraordinary 20km of underground cellars ("caves") dates back to 1922 and goes four storeys down into the cool subterranean limestone, some 135,000 cubic metres of ideal conditions for housing the thousands-upon-thousands of bottles of cava as they age peacefully in perfect conditions.

So extensive are these caves in fact, that small trains have to be used to move visitors through them on organised tours that begin with an audio visual presentation of the history of the company, a guided tour of the winery in which Freixenet sparklings are still made true to the traditional Methode Champenoise with secondary fermentation in-bottle, through the vast cellaring caves, a tasting of the Freixenet product of course – and finally a must-do visit to the in-house Dolores Ferrer wine paraphernalia shop.

As well as learning much about the actual sparkling winemaking process, visitors also learn how best to store, serve and enjoy sparkling wines – and how somewhat bizarrely, Freixenet as the world's biggest maker of sparkling wines, in fact owns just 300ha of grape vines.

The 100-million kilograms or so of grapes it uses each year come from some 2000-plus growers, whose vines are inspected with military-like precision daily throughout every vintage to determine optimum time for hand-picking from the thousands upon thousands of individual rows. And the logistics of their delivery from so many growers to arrive in the winery in the peak of condition, would do the most meticulous 5-star General proud.

Freixenet today accounts for over half of all of Spain's sparkling wine production, and 80% of its exports – and is still family-owned, with José semi-retired and his own son Pedro, a fourth generation Ferrer, now managing the business.

And amongst José's fondest memories of his years at the helm? "When I called a new cava Cordon Negro in 1974 and decided to sell it in a frosted black bottle, my colleagues said: 'A black bottle? Are you crazy?' But Cordon Negro is today the biggest-selling sparkling wine in the world, and that black bottle is one of the world's most recognisable." He still chuckles about it today.

You can visit the Cavas Freixenet winery by train from Barcelona-Sants or Barcelona Placa Catalunya Stations to Sant Sadurni D'Anoia station (the winery is just across the road,) by car via the AP-7 or AP-2 motorways or with several daily coach operators from Barcelona.

The 1.5hr winery tour costs E7 per adult with pensioner/child discounts; the coach tours from Barcelona are higher cost. Details www.freixenet.com

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PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] GOING down… the cellars descend four levels underground. (Freixenet Wines)
[] PART of the original cellars dug into the limestone in the 1920s and still in use today. Visitors use small trains to get around the vast cellars.  (Freixenet Wines)
[] MORE modern section of the cellars. (Freixenet Wines)
[] "ARE you crazy?" colleagues asked José Ferrer when he came up with the idea of a frosted black bottle. Today's it's the world's biggest-selling sparkling wine. (Freixenet Wines.) 
[] HISTORIC poster dating back to 1929, and one of the company's most successful ever. (Freixenet Wines)



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