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 Penedes, 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.
2, Freixenet uses only one type of yeast to ferment all of three of the Spanish white grapes (Maccabeo, Parillada and Xarel-lo) 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 southeastern 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 Penedes, the main district of Cava, but they cannot use any sub-designation such as Cava-Penedes 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, which generally don't want the familiar black bottle that is 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 from the non-kosher 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% Xarel-lo.
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, and is a terrific value at $14. Maybe the best of the lot is Casa Sala, a rather freaky artisanal product and 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 sells for 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.
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.
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, in view of the facts 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.
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W. Blake Gray won the Roederer Award for World's Best Online Wine Writer in 2013. You can read his blog at blog.wblakegray.com, and follow him on Twitter at @wblakegray.