A few days ago, I read an article about the history of the Spanish Brandy business which opened my eyes to a grape I had been unfamiliar with called Airén. Evidently, grapes first began to be cultivated in Jerez when the Moors ruled Spain from 711 to 1492. Interestingly, because drinking alcohol is prohibited in the Islam religion, they distilled the wine for it’s alcohol, which in turn was used in the production of cosmetics, essences, antiseptics and medicine. The word “Al-Kohl’ is actually an Arabic term for the fine powder used in cosmetics. In ancient Spanish, the reflexive verb “alcoholarse’ did not refer to a Saturday night binge, but rather to paint one’s eyes! It wasn’t until hundreds of years later before the Airén grape became the backbone of great Spanish Brandy.
The Airén grape, also known as Lairén in southern Spain, is the single most planted vine variety in the world due mainly to it’s unusually low vine density. Part of it’s fame is due to Franco’s influence. During his dictatorship, in order to quell poverty, France offered his citizens a deal; if they produced brandy, he would purchase it. The effect was dramatic. Due to its high sugar levels and large yields, Airén grapes were widely used for this brandy. Today, Spain produces approximately 1500 vines per hector. Primarily planted in La Mancha and Valdepenas, Airén is not only able to withstand the vast and severe temperatures ranging from 45ºC to -12/15ºC in these regions, but this light skinned grape can also live successfully through long droughts. The notoriety Airén has received for both it’s durability and incredibly high yield has allowed it to occupy almost a third of all Spanish vineyards.
Traditionally, other than for brandy, Airén has been vinified as a white wine producing heavy wines distinguished by oxidation. Now, using stainless steel equipment, computer-controlled harvesting and temperature controlled fermentation, they create crisp, slightly neutral dry white wines marked for early consumption.
Like most vines in Spain, Airén vines are typically trained into gobelet shaped growth – literally translated as ‘goblet’. This ancient method of vine training does not involve wires, wood or metal, but rather careful pruning. The trunk of the vine is kept quite short, whereby forming a gnarled lump of old wood at the head of the trunk from years of spur pruning the few branches that sprout from the crown. Also referred to as ‘head training’, these vines resemble a small bush or shrub, and may also be described as ‘bush vines’. Most commonly this type of pruning is found in warm, dry climates, without fertile soil like La Mancha where the bushy structure inhibits rapid evaporation, as opposed to humid environments such as Catalonia or Galicia where there is an increased risk of rot.
Although I haven’t had the pleasure of trying this particular grape as of recent, Ryan has, and has kindly provided us with some tasting notes of two Airén wines from the La Mancha region.
- 2005 Coop. San Isidro Labrador Airén Clearly Organic – Spain, Castilla-La Mancha (11/10/2005)
Clear in color. The nose shows sweet aromas with green peach and mango flavors. In the mouth it is fully dry with strong acidity. Flavors of light sweet peach and soft fruit flavors. Nice pleasant summer sip.
- 2004 Bodegas Navanjo SL La Mancha Viña Cuerva Blanco – Spain, Castilla-La Mancha, Campo de Calatrara, La Mancha (5/16/2005)
Clear as water with a light herbal nose and some flower aromas. Crisp and light in the mouth. Good acid with light fruit and floral flavors.