Freixenet: A Tale Of Cava

Reserva Real

Having some sparkling wine cava is one of those things that can’t be missed when visiting Spain. Spanish drink cava during celebrations, after a meal, or simply over a conversation in a bar. I thought I’d take cava more seriously this time by going on a proper winery tour and learning a few things on how this cousin of champagne is made

The Beginning

Word cava comes from Italian ‘cova’, which means cave. In the early days of wine production caves were used for storing and ageing of wine. Catalan winemakers adopted the term to distinguish their produce from French champagne.

One of the largest cava producers Freixenet (pronounced ‘fresh-eh-net’) I happened to visit has been making cava for over 150 years using traditional method, or méthode champenoise, fermenting wine naturally in the bottle. This allows the bubbles to be produced in a natural way. The winery was established by Sala family at the beginning of the 20th century. The name of it was derived from the word fresno, which means ash tree (freixenet – little ash tree).

Freixenet winery

Freixenet winery

From Vineyard To Bottle

The tale of cava begins in the vineyards, where sun ripened Macabeo, Parellada and Xarello grapes are collected and then delivered to the winery. When must is extracted and solid particles eliminated, the juice goes to big tanks where the first fermentation happens. It has to be a constant temperature between 14C and 16C when fermenting. When the first fermentation is finished, wine undergoes clarification and filtering and then, after seeding it with yeast and sugar, it is ready to be bottled and piled in the cellars for the second fermentation to happen.

At the beginning the bottles are left to rest in horizontal position, so the residue of the yeasts settle down on the glass. The next step is placing the bottles into A-shaped racks in an angle with the necks down, where they are turned periodically. This makes the sediments concentrate on the base of the cork so they can be easily extracted. The extraction (or disgorging) of the sediments is done by freezing the neck of the bottle and expelling it in the form of ice. Filling liquor is added to replace the liquid extracted and the bottles are sealed with a final seal.

Cava bottles

The process of collecting sediments

There are different types of Cava, which result from the length of time the wine is allowed to age during its second fermentation stage: if the label of the wine says simply Cava, that means it had minimum of 9 months ageing, if it says Reserva, it had minimum 15 months ageing. Gran Reserva means minimum 30 months of ageing.

The standard size cava bottle is 750ml, but there is a range of both smaller and larger bottle sizes, which are produced. It was quite a puzzle trying to guess what size of the bottle is awarded to the winner of each Formula 1 Grand Prix. There were quite a few guesses that it could be 6 litter bottle (Methuselah), but the correct answer was 3 litter bottle (Jeroboam). As big as the bottle might seem in the proportion to the driver, it’s an optical illusion, since the drivers of F1 are usually not that tall.

Bottle sizes

The range of bottle sizes

Hidden Treasures

It was interesting to walk along the endless labyrinth of wine cellars, watching racks and racks of bottles piled, which were undergoing different phases of their fermentation cycle and listening the stories about the wine.

Some bottles in the racks were covered in dust and cobwebs, making them look like treasures from a ship wreck. Those were sitting there for years and years like a relict, gone way past the date of consumption and now serving a purpose of a decoration.

Old bottles

Old wine bottles

There was another large section of bottles with murky yellow liquid and a fair bit of sediments in them, which were not meant for usage. There was one year when something went wrong, the fermentation in the bottles never happened and the whole batch went to waste. The topic (and obviously – the loss) was so painful, that nobody wanted to talk about it nor unveil the real reasons behind that.

A Story In Your Glass

The flavour of cava is affected by quite a few factors, starting with the variety and composition of grapes and finishing with amount of sugar in it. Brut nature is the most crisp, very dry wine, which contains almost no sugar and its counterpart Brut can have from zero to 15g of sugar per litre. Seco or dry wine despite the name is not as dry as brut, with a hint of sweetness. Semiseco or medium dry wine is a fruity, sweeter wine and Dulce is the sweetest in the range of cavas with more than 50g of sugar per litre.

Getting to try four different kinds of cava was an opportunity to prove, that there are much more nuances to the wine than any formal classification can describe.  There were two Brut nature wines I tasted – Meritum and Casa Sala, which appeared to be totally different in character. The citrusy and yeasty tones of 40 months aged Meritum made my palate shrink, whilst Casa Sala was like a mild breeze in comparison to it. Containing 75% of Parellada grapes, which give the most delicate flavour, it was my personal favourite from the wines I tried while visiting Freixenet. Aged for minimum 30 months, pale green yellow in colour, citrusy with notes of green apple, flavours of pastries and fruit.

Wine tasting

Ready for wine stories

Gran Reserva Brut Cuvée D.S. was named in honour of Dolores Sala – the woman who revived family business and took it to the next level in terms of wine production and export. Aged for a considerable time (between 36 and 48 months), very woody and aromatic, with hints of fruit on the nose and balsamic notes on the palate this wine tells you the story of ageing.

Reserva Real is worth a separate mention, if not for its vintage looking bottle and distinct qualities, than for the story witnessing its birth. In Spain any attributes associated with royal family can’t be used without a permission of the king. Back in 1987 the king himself visited the winery, tasted some cava and signed the permission to use the word ‘real’ or ‘royal’ in the name of the wine. Reserva Real is made from wines from several harvests, combining the best qualities of each of them. The bottle is closed with a natural cork, giving some hints of bottle ageing on the nose with dried fruit aromas and pastry, strong first note on the palate and a refreshing finish.

The visit to the winery left me with a bottle of cava, a book on oenology (the science of wine and winemaking) I read thoroughly when I got back home and an appreciation for the stories the wine tells which I am still learning to listen.

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