I WAS baffled, to say the least, when I found myself standing in front of an innocuous little souvenir shop in the middle of Barcelona late in the evening. I thought I was going for a meal. Why was I here? We rang the bell of the locked shopfront door – then a few moments later a lift glided effortlessly into view at the rear of the shop and out stepped a waiter.
He beckoned us to step in and follow him down below, where before us was revealed Chiton, a chic restaurant which is part of Barcelona’s secret dining scene.
In its hidden depths we began a six-course meal, and our little party toasted our good fortune. We chink-chinked our glasses which tinkled with the bubbly-bright cava which is as synonymous with the region of Catalonia as the calcotada – Catalan spring onions – which began our meal.
It wasn’t the first time that day that I’d ventured below ground to find a vista of taste-teasing delights magically unveiled before me.
Earlier I had explored Freixenet’s winery in the village of Sant Sadurni d’Anoia at the heart of Penedes, which is the main capital of cava.
Penedes lies about an hour’s drive from Barcelona and a wide range of wine styles are produced there, including Spain’s sparkling cava, which is made in the same way as Champagne, but using a blend of the indigenous grapes xarel.lo, macabeo and parellada.
That morning I had taken a long look at the magnificent views of the one-time 1992 Olympics city from my bedroom high up in the W Barcelona Hotel. The city looked magnificent across the bay, and in the distance were the rolling hills and mountains of Penedes.
The heart of cava country. We headed off by road and in less than an hour we were outside Freixenet’s headquarters in Sant Sadurni D’Anoia.
A party of tourists were getting off the train which pulled up just outside Freixenet’s HQ. They too wanted to see inside the world of the company which has created one of the most familiar sights on our wine shelves, the classic black bottle of Cordon Negro.
Freixenet is the world’s largest producer of cava – 102.5 million of bottles of cava are produced per year – that’s 69,187,500 litres which would fill about 28 Olympic sized swimming pools.
Freixenet’s traditional villa-like exterior was warm and welcoming; not as I expected the centre of an international wine brand to appear.
Mini-trains take people up and down the levels; there’s stacks upon stacks of bottles, some empty; some ready to make their journey to Germany – which receives nearly four million 12-bottle cases and is its biggest export market – and then its next biggest markets, the UK, the US and Japan. In 2010/2011 Freiexenet had 56% of the cava export market.
Back to the visit. The doors of the Freixenet winery have been open to the public for many years so that people can take a closer look at the world of cava. One section of the cellars from 1922 is brick-lined and oozes character and personality.
Rows upon rows of bottles recline downwards at an angle.
One part of the traditional way of making sparkling wine is to “riddle” the bottles. They are given a slight shake and the sloping angle gradually increased. This pushes sediments towards the neck of the bottle, to be removed later. In the more modern part of the Freixenet cellars, bottles are clasped by machines and are imperceptibly riddled.
Further along the tour machines pick up bottles, tenderly crablike, and place them in boxes ready to begin their journeys to you and me.
Freixenet is proud of its wine-making innovations and its green stance – in 2002 it became a founder member of the United Nations initiative regarding ethical trading and sustainability. But it is just as proud that it is still a family-owned business and its cava can stand shoulder-to-shoulder in quality with many Champagnes.
Damian Clarke, the MD for Freixenet UK, told me: “Consumers are becoming much more curious and adventurous and are looking for something a little different.
“Everybody has probably seen our famous Cordon Negro bottle, but we offer so many more styles of cava too. Some people probably don’t realise that cava is made in exactly the same traditional way as Champagne, but we can offer better value and some superb drinking experiences.”