La Mancha’s hidden secret

Grapes with a double life


Located in the autonomous community of Castilla-La Mancha in Spain’s central Iberian plateau La Mancha is the largest continuous vine-growing area in the world. Traveling to the area one gets a sense of this as vineyards hug both sides of the motorway, stretching as far as the eye can see. 

With over 190,000 hectares planted WITH vines in the region, it’s roughly the same size as the entire grape planting in Romania (190,000 ha.) and more than global wine powerhouses Australia (146,000 hectares) South Africa (122,000 ha.) and Germany (103,000 ha.). 

So if that’s the case why aren’t wines from La Mancha better known? 

A big clue comes from the most widely planted grape in the region, the white grape Airén. Wines made from 100% Airén are often described as fresh and dry, often unremarkable, and I was told by a local expert when I visited that ageing the wine in oak doesn’t necessarily improve the flavour profile. Indeed, consumption as a white wine is not where most Airén is destined for.

Bordering Castilla-La Mancha to the south is Andalucía, in wine terms home to one of the best known wine regions in Spain, Jerez - home of sherry. Sherry is a fortified wine, meaning that while the base wine is made using grapes from the region, a neutral brandy is added in order to produce the distinctive styles that range from light, fragrant fino and manzanilla, through to nutty, aromatic oloroso. It is here that the Airén grape comes into its own, producing a neutral brandy that won’t mask the distinctive sherry grape characteristics. 

So while it may not be listed anywhere on the bottle and is rarely mentioned, the next time you try a glass of sherry remember the unsung Airén grape, which likely helped make it what it is!

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