Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Spain 4: bubbly

It being the fourth of July, and our class more than fifty percent American, we celebrated their holiday by first visiting Freixenet, the market leader in cava (a word meaning sparkling wine produced in a cave). It's a massive enterprise, with three areas: traditional, mostly manual production; mechanised production; and fully automated (robotic) production.

The scale of the cellars is awesome, as you would expect from a company that exports 140 million bottles a year of this serious competitor in the sparkling wine market. Such a company also requires a high degree of standardisation, so unlike some of the smaller wineries we've produced, who accept that the grape is a growing thing that will differ in quality and flavour each year, Freixenet has had to marshal many techniques to standardise its product, and relies therefore on cultivated yeasts (artisanal producers use wild ones, whose flavour will vary) and blending the three base wines they produce from Macabeo, Xarello and Parellada grapes.

The Spanish grape varietals they use are what makes the wine distinct in flavour from French champagne, which is made from blends of Chardonnay and Pinots (Noir and Meunier). But the same method of production is used: methode champenoise, which must now, because of geographical protection legislation for Champagne, be called methode traditionnelle. The basic technique involves crushing the grapes, filtering and fermenting the grape juice in vats or barrels, and then putting it through a secondary fermentation in the bottle: to each is added a bit of sweet liqueur (made from yeast, sugar and wine); the bottles are turned by hand (in the manual production area) or by machine or robot in the other areas, at intervals until the fermentation is complete, between one and four years at low temperatures.

Later that evening, one of us already sporting the most exotic injury of the trip (a jellyfish sting), we laid into the cava and an excellent spread including tortilla, cold chicken and (what American party would be complete without it) Lay's potato chips, as well as a chocolate cake. Despite the airborne arrival of one randomly thrown egg (which missed hitting celebrants) the party went well and included rousing versions of Star Spangled Banner and Take Me Out to the Ball Game. The grand finale was a surprise appearance from the Freixenet bubble girl...


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