Can you name Spain’s most widely planted grape variety? Here’s a hint: it’s not Tempranillo. It’s not Garnacha either. Believe it or not, it’s not even a red grape. It’s an obscure white variety called Airén!
A member of the vitis vinifera family of grapes (the same genus that pretty much covers all of our European favorites i.e. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc etc.), Airén is actually the third most widely planted wine varietal in the whole world, just behind its distant cousins Cabernet and Merlot in total acreage. But the odds are pretty long that you won’t find any significant vineyards of it outside of Spain. And even in España, much of its nearly 600K acres under vine resides primarily within Castilla-La Mancha.
Why so much of this weird variety in just one place on planet earth?
Well history buffs, you’d pretty much have to place the blame squarely on Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. During his miserable reign, in an attempt to alleviate poverty and generate badly needed funds for his cash-strapped Fascist regime post-WWII, Generalissimo Franco encouraged his citizens to produce brandy for export. One thing the Airén grape is adept at is yielding decent brandy. Plantings soared to more than a million acres in the latter half of the 20th century as a result.
In democratic Spain today, there is far less demand for it in the production of brandy, which is why it’s being scaled back in favor of more popular red grapes like Tempranillo. But it also happens that Airén makes very quaffable sparkling wines too. There are some historic plantings that predate the Spanish Civil War and are over 110 years old. I came face to face with one such amazing vineyard on a visit to La Mancha a couple of years ago.
So what’s available at your local ABC Fine Wine & Spirits store that showcases Airén’s crisp apple, juicy peach and pretty floral notes? Check out Cascabello Espumoso Semi-Dulce ($8), a refreshing off-dry sparkler comprised of mostly Airén and a dollop of Chardonnay.
It’s terrific on its own as an aperitif or paired with lighter foods like soft white cheeses and tapas.
Jim Greeley, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits wine and spirits supervisor
Follow me on Twitter @ABCWineJimG