It is one of the most popular white grapes from the Iberian country, and despite its relatively unknown status, the Airen grape occupies one of the largest ever produced white grape varieties in terms of yields and acreage.
As of 2010, it was the only white grape variety that occupied the most vineyard acreage in the world, more than any other white grape, even the best ones to date. And most of it came from Spain alone.
However, the grape is used more as a workhorse variety, with practical purposes for raisins, table wines and wines for purely local consumption.
It is, however, used as a grape to develop base wine for Spanish brandy. It is a relatively old grape and has seen many records and documents written in favour of it as compared to a lot of other Iberian grape varieties and thus is valued for its antiquity.
Varietal wines have never been manufactured thus far from Airén, owing to the variety’s relatively very neutral taste and flavour, and its high acidity that has made it the choice for making brandy for centuries while limiting its use to develop blended or varietal wines.
Origins of Airén
Airén has a comparatively very well preserved history behind it. Its first ever recorded dates back to almost 1615 when several writers and ampelographers of that time tracked Airen’s details and its descriptions.
The grape variety remained exclusive to Spain since then and very little was known of it outside the Iberian country.
Being very heat resistant, the grape would have never found prospective regions outside Spain because of absence of appropriate climates and soils.
Gabriel Alonso de Herrera’s Agcicultura General describes the grape in some depth. The author cites the grape as Datileña because of the nature of the grapes that are bunched together to resemble a bunch of dates.
He, however, does not describe the taste of it, confessing that he did not test out for himself and goes on to describe that the grape would serve as a very good table variety.
Several other writers similar to de Herrera wrote about the grape. In 1807, Roxas Clemente described two types of Airén grapes – one that is known as modern Airén from La Mancha and second as a table grape as described by de Herrera himself.
Citing several synonyms of the grape that are still in existence in several regions of Spain, Clemente goes on to describe the grape as ‘whitish with very hard roots and green-yellowish hairy leaves with shallow sinuses.
They are tightly clustered grapes, which are large and late in maturing with visible veins’. Although very brief and succinct, the single line description pretty much gave every detail of the Airén shoot.
Several other writers of the same century and the next described the grape in great details and most of them suggested its use as a table grape and a variety used to make raisins.
Jancis Robinson in 1996, described the grape again has having neutral characteristics that are best fit to add in the brandy and to give structure to it, as also a variety that can be used as a simple table vine and to make raisins.
Viticulture and uses
Airén is best cultivated in extremely dry, hot areas that have literally little to not water. La Mancha is one of the primary places where Airén is grown, and its soil and the climate year round makes up for the best quality of Airén produce.
Because of the grape’s natural resistance towards heat conditions and drought, it has thus existed in central Spain for centuries.
Its uses vary, but most of it is put into brandy development. It was once also used as a blending agent with red varieties exclusive to Spain, like Cencibel, although such practices have until now vanished.
Once greatly cultivated, with over 400,000 hectares reported in 1990s, this has gone down to just a little over 300,000 hectares reported around 2006.
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