Freixenet, now world leader in the cava sector, would never have occupied this position without the input and talent of Dolors Sala. She was the critical success factor from the foundation of the company right till her death. Freixenet’s story is Dolors’ story.
When Dolors Sala Vivé and her husband Pere Ferrer Bosch found the company of sparkling wines in 1914 shortly after their marriage, she knows what she is talking about. Dolors is the daughter and granddaughter of specialists in still wines of the old Casa Sala established in 1861 by Francesc Sala Ferrés, her grandfather.
This family business was the first brand to export wines from Sant Sadurní d’Anoia (Alt Penedès) halfway through the 19th century. Therefore she has an extensive knowledge of oenology. In blind taste tests she can easily distinguish the wines from Sant Sadurní, Subirats and Mediona that are grown around her home.
Pere in his turn belongs to the Ferrer family which for 18 generations has held the property called ‘La Freixeneda’ (meaning ‘the forest of ash trees’), a 13th-century wine producing estate in Sant Quintí de Mediona. He is the youngest son, hence the nickname ‘Freixenet’ (‘small ash tree’).
Therefore the circumstances seem ideal for this pair. But were they?
Around 1927 Dolors and Pere set up their wine cellars in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, a village in the heart of the Penedès, opposite the main train station. This region was already famous for the quality of the wines produced there since the era of the Roman Empire. But when the couple starts their business the circumstances of the wine growing trade are adverse.
At the end of the 80s of the 19th century the phylloxera plague had reached the Penedès. Within a few years the vines were becoming less and less profitable and finally died. Some members of the Sala family had to abandon the company and look for other means of earning their daily bread, like the administration of properties and politics. For example, Joan Sala Tubella, Dolors’ father, is in office as mayor of Sant Sadurní for two terms.
Then at the beginning of the 20th century an important discovery is made: American trunks are immune to the plague, so by grafting European varieties on American trunks it is possible to renovate the vineyards.
Dolors, always full of innovating ideas, immediately snatches up this solution and begins to replace the red grape vines destroyed by the phylloxera plague and replant her vineyards with white indigenous grape varieties like macabeu, parellada and xarel·lo.
At the same time Dolors and Pere decide to switch the focus of the family business to sparkling wines and from then on exclusively produce cava; this turns out to be a smart move.
Originally cava is a natural sparkling wine produced in the region Champagne (France) from the 18th century onwards. However, the name Champagne is legally protected since the Madrid Agreement for the International Registration of Marks was concluded in 1891, which reserved it for the sparkling wine made in the French region.
So sparkling wines made with the same method, champenoise, had to use another name. In Catalonia this became cava and as a ‘new’ product it aroused interest in the first half of the 20th century.
The loss of red grape vines due to the phylloxera epidemic moved Dolors Sala to use white Catalan indigenous grapes for her cava’s instead. Generally a blend of three varieties is used: macabeu, parellada and xarel·lo, the Penedès classics. The percentage of each grape changes every year according to its quality and the taste.
The macabeu grape is compact and big, its taste is very sweet. It gives to the wine a perfume that is slightly fruity and aromatic reminding you of apples and oranges. The parellada is just as big and compact, but gives a fresh wine with a more floral sensation. When you look at xarel·lo, you see a smaller and less compact grape with a thicker skin than the other two. These characteristics provide body to the cava. Today this trio still forms a solid base for the production of sparkling wines.
Right from the start Dolors and Pere are a winning team. He is the commercial genius who designs new marketing strategies and travels all over the world to sell their products.
His success in this field is greatly due to Dolors who not only manages the technical part of the production process of their wines, but also has highly developed tasting skills helping her to produce great new cava‘s. As a wine expert avant la lettre she knows how to obtain the best assemblages, and especially those of the brut type.
In 1930 she is the first cavista to put on the market a Catalan brut reserva, the Brut Vintage. It is the beginning of a quickly expanding business in cava bearing the brandname Freixenet Casa Sala.
Dolors Sala makes a longterm planning for the development of the company providing a solid basis for the production of her wines. She leads the company with a firm yet gentle hand; inspired by her Christian beliefs, she aims at excellency in her work.
Dolors strives to offer products with a constant quality and soon their excellent reputation is growing in Latin-America and the emerging markets of that moment; in 1935 her cava was already known in New Jersey, U.S.A.
Then the Spanish Civil War breaks out…
The consequences of the Civil War
Sadly the Spanish Civil War cuts short the happy family life of Dolors and Pere as well as the development of the company of sparkling wines. In 1936, at the beginning of the war, Dolors’ husband is shot by an anarchist faction and Joan, their eldest son, also disappears. The hostilities destroy great part of the business of senyor Pere and senyora Dolors, as they were called by their employees.
So after the Civil War followed by WWII, Dolors finds herself alone to educate their four children and run a company almost in ruins. At the same time, circumstances are not favorable, as credit policies of the financial sector prove to be not very liberal and the demand has fallen markedly in those first years of reconstruction, as cava is considered to be a luxury product.
Nevertheless, Dolors dedicates herself with heart and soul to the concern and with the help of her daughter Pilar she succeeds in rebuilding the firm of which she is president till her death turning Freixenet into one of the world’s top companies in the sector of quality sparkling wines it is today.