Founded in Spain in 1861 in Penedès, the main district of Catalonia, Freixenet S.A. currently owns 18 wineries across three continents and is one of the best-known Spanish wine brands. The 155 years old family owned business has annual sales exceeding Euro 500 million (US$ 560 million) and produces over 200 million bottles of sparkling wine each year.
The sparkling wine is known as “cava” due to the fact that much of the production fermentation process is in a network of several miles of underground caves or cellars. To be branded cava, sparkling wine must be produced in the ‘champenoise traditional method’, in the past cava was referred to as “Spanish champagne”, however this branding is no longer permitted under European Union law. Nevertheless the method of production for cava and Champagne are pretty much the same in which wine is fermented twice and sugar added to make it bubbly.
Sparkling wine is currently the key growth area in the beers, wine and spirits category. This growth has caused some challenges for Freixenet to increase production capacity to the same degree as an increase in the success of the brand and its products. The challenges are compounded by the traditional methods of production which require that processes are maintained, in fact according to Josep Palau, Head of Production at Freixenet:
What has not changed at all is our traditional elaboration process, which still includes each and every one of the stages as they were undertaken 50 years ago. We collect the grapes, make the base wines, bottle them, ferment them, then the crianza process begins, disgorging, etc. But what we have done continuously is make these stages more technical and automated in order to adapt ourselves to an increase in demand.
Those changes in production also depend on the particular cava being produced; the process is either done by hand (for the very top cuvees), or increasingly by automation. For example the company now uses pneumatic presses with a soft membrane that creates a pressure similar to traditional foot treading for pressing the grapes.
Once the grapes are pressed the ‘must’ from which the base wines are made is mixed in large vats by adding sugar, yeast and clarifiers, this then undergoes a bottling process and then the wines are taken to the cellars for fermentation. The fermentation involves the use of computerized automation that slowly rotate the bottles to help the build up of the carbon dioxide gas needed for cava’s characteristic bubbles. Depending on the product, this may range from a minimum of nine months to three years or more in higher quality wines.
Of Freixenet’s 1700 employees worldwide approximately 350 are employed at their main production facility. According to Josep Palau a large number of employees are involved in heavy manual tasks of moving the bottles around.
Once the base wines are bottled, the bottles have to be stored in cellars and this requires a great deal of internal logistics.
The cellar process, whether it is positioning the bottles or retrieving them a year later for the clarifying process before disgorging, involves a lot of internal movement and labor.
To help overcome many of the handling, maneuvering and bottling problems Freixenet have installed 36 industrial robots from Fanuc. With the help of Fanuc’s robots production capability has increased substantially. Josep Palau says:
Now an operator can move 500 bottles with each action rather than the two bottles before. The disadvantage before was that, as well as continuing to need somebody to intervene manually, the process also took up a lot of space in our cellars.
The next major innovation was automating the stacking process, or placing the bottles in the cellars, which had previously been done manually until Freixenet’s technicians and a local engineer came up with and implemented a robotic system that allowed the job to be done more efficiently. Mr. Palau believes this automation was the most significant milestone in improving productivity and reducing waste:
This was probably one of the most important innovations that was introduced. Later, and in the aim of being able to manage a great number of bottles, a new bottling process was created, which was almost completely automated and was fully robotized during the end stage. The bottles leave the production line via an automated transport system and arrive directly to the cellars, where an automatic robot system positions them in place for the crianza stage.
By automating this process, work was greatly simplified and our ability to handle this removal step increased enormously, thereby allowing us to handle growth.
In addition to increasing productivity by more than 32 per cent since the introduction of the robots and securing jobs, Freixenet have also discovered environmental benefits from the new technology for bottling and handling. The automation has resulted in a reduction of 25 per cent of the organic pollution load, chemical oxygen demand (COD) of wastewater per unit produced between 2012-2014, and glass waste has been reduced by 7 per cent.
In Spain, one of the key dates on the calendar in the run-up to Christmas is the first broadcast of the Freixenet TV advert. A tradition established in 1978, which has been graced through the years by celebrities such as Demi Moore, Pierce Brosnan, Penélope Cruz, Kim Basinger, Sharon Stone, Antonio Banderas, Paul Newman, Josep Carreras, Plácido Domingo, and many more. The celebrities of the 2012 campaign were two of Freixenet’s production Fanuc robots saluting with 2 glasses of cava. Cheers!