Airén - The Most Popular Grape You’ve Never Heard Of
If you’ve never heard of airén, you’re not alone. However, you might be surprised to know that this white, indigenous Spanish grape is the most widely planted grape variety in the world.
If you like Spanish whites from La Mancha or Valdepenas, you have undoubtedly experienced airén. Outside of Spain, you’ll find airén plantings in France and Australia, where it is used for blending into inexpensive sparkling wines and for distillation.
So where has airén been hiding? How will you recognize it? And what do you pair it with?
Fast Facts About Airén
Even the most adventurous wine lovers don’t have a lot of experience with airén. However, if you’re at all literary, you’ll understand it right away. It’s the primary white grape in the La Mancha region of Spain, grown on high rocky plateaus in the area made famous by the fictional character Don Quixote.
La Mancha is to Spain what the Languedoc is to France—a vast growing area known for its value-priced but often excellent wine. To illustrate just how much wine is made there, consider that La Mancha is more than 100 times larger than Napa Valley. Though plantings have diminished in recent years, current estimates have it at 578,000 acres, just slightly smaller than the country of Luxembourg.
Historically, airén never commanded much of an audience and was primarily used for distillation and often exported as bulk wine to make cheap sparkling in other parts of the European Union. More recently, however, wines made from old vines have shown well on the world stage, raising the profile for airén and perhaps ushering in a new era for the grape. That said, it does face certain challenges that only careful winemaking techniques can solve.
Airén tends to oxidize very quickly once picked, and it’s seedier than most wine grapes. As a result, pressing must be done carefully to ensure the bitter flavors and tannins from the seeds don’t make their way into the wine. Fermentation must be cool and controlled to preserve the aromatics, and the juice must be minimally handled if quality wine is the goal.
Airén: The Workhorse Grape
Airén is often used as part of the blend in sparkling wines from all over Spain. It’s also a component of sherry and is often used for distillation into brandy. Though it is seen as a workhorse grape, modern, quality-minded producers are succeeding with airén as a still, single-varietal wine. At its best, airén rivals some of the best Italian pinot grigio, producing a crisp, racy, minerally wine that’s as delightful sipped as an aperitif as it is at the dinner table.
Food Pairings With Airén
Airén is generally dry, medium-bodied, and fruity. Serve chilled, but not too cold. It goes perfectly with salads, grilled vegetables, and grilled chicken. It also pairs great with seafood like, poached salmon, ceviche, shellfish, or a nice white fish with lemon and capers.
Love white wine? Did you know most of our wine clubs offer the options to choose white or red wine? Try a new white wine every month!