Mass-produced grapes with a fresh new future
Wednesday 27 April 2022
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Ever heard of Airén? No? Don’t worry -- not many people have. So what is it? A new brand of fabric conditioner? Nope. A newly discovered moon of Jupiter? Nope. A grape variety? Yup!
What if I were to tell you that this particular grape’s major claim to fame is that, in 1990 and 2000, it was the grape that occupied the greatest vineyard area in the world? By 2017 it had fallen to the sixth (only the sixth!) most planted variety.
Surprising, then, that it’s little known, or grown, outside Spain.
One reason is that Airén, which is indigenous to Spain, is completely suited to the growing conditions found in La Mancha in particular. It can cope with the rare rainfall, poor soil and few nutrients that this region has to offer. In fact, it’s so well-adapted to these harsh conditions that it’s a bit of a workhorse, giving a lot from being granted little.
Another reason is that, for the most part, Airén is grown to be distilled into brandy rather than be made into table wine. The production of Spanish brandy increased after WWII when Franco struck a deal with France: France would purchase the brandy in an attempt to help alleviate Spain’s poverty. The vast swathes of Airén vines admirably fitted the brandy grape profile.
Thus was created one of the few exports in Spain’s closed economy of the 1950s.
Additionally, any Airén table wine that was made was generally destined for local, domestic consumption, where fermentation took place in traditional earthenware tinajas - a bit hit-and-miss at the best of times - resulting in unreliable (sometimes downright terrible) wine.
As Jane Parkinson comments in her book Wine and Food: “I wouldn’t search too hard for a table wine made from this [variety]. It’s mostly used in the production of Spanish brandy. Let’s hope it stays that way!” Ouch. No wonder then, that the rest of the world either hasn’t heard of Airén or has little regard for it.
But times, they are a-changing.
This light-skinned, unassuming white grape has undergone a bit of a renaissance. And this is due in no small part to temperature-controlled fermentation and precise intervention by the winemaker. Gone are the unpredictable outcomes of fermentation in tinajas - vintners can now produce more consistent, marketable results.
In addition, because restrictions on irrigation were lifted in 1996, winemakers now have more control over what areas can be cultivated. It also means that other white varieties which need more reliable access to moisture, such as Sauvignon Blanc, Torrontes, Verdejo, Viognier, Macabeo and Chardonnay, are being introduced to the area to produce blends with a better balance. These blended varietals can compete with more notable Spanish vinos.
So, what’s table wine made from Airén like? Bearing in mind some of the negative comments, it makes a pretty respectable, if not entirely elegant, single-varietal wine. Flavours include apple, underpinned by citrusy grapefruit, with hints of pineapple and banana – some also have a nuance of rose. The wine is invariably low in acidity, but you will find a bit of body to it.
Some winemakers have even experimented with oak ageing too, to give a wine with more complexity and unctuous flavours. Airén, blended with other varietals, produces a kaleidoscopic range of aromas and flavours, acidity and body, to satisfy just about every taste.
So, from being the Cinderella of the Spanish wine world, Airén has joined the Ball, for certain, due to new techniques, legislation and tastes. It is now an attractive wine on its own and a valued component in blended wine. You’d be surprised.
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