I thought I knew quite a bit about Spanish wine, but then I came across a bottle of 100% Airén.
First, who has even heard of Airén as a grape varietal? Second, imagine my shock when I found out it's a Spanish grape and is the 3rd most widely produced in the world. Third, I'm not in Europe, I'm in Cambodia. I had given up on finding anything even resembling a decent wine after I tried what most of Asia calls 'Rice Wine' (which should really be called Rice Gut Rot Ultimate Hangover Drink.)
Where I'm staying in Cambodia regularly carries Bayanegra Airén, a product of Bodegas Celaya. When I asked to see the bottle and realized I didn't recognize the name or varietal, I was instantly intrigued and started researching. I was surprised to find there's not a whole lot out there about Airén other than a bit of history about it's extensive use in brandy, that it flourishes in extreme conditions, and it is used often for blending.
This lack of information is puzzling, considering Airén is the 3rd most widely grown grape varietal in the world, predominately grown in Spain where it's 30% of all grape production. Even the Jancis Robinson website had only two sentences to say about it, "The grape of the vast La Mancha region in central Spain and therefore one of the world's most planted wine grapes. It produces crisp, fairly neutral wine, much of it being distilled into brandy"
The serving temperature recommendation is 10°c and lower, which is impossible to achieve where I am in the tropics, so my tasting notes will be a bit off, but I must say, it's definitely the best value I've found in Southeast Asia so far.
Medium body, lots of floral notes mixed with pineapple and peach, and a smooth light acidity level. It resembles a Pinot Grigio that has some more body to it, but that could also be my tasting temperature. Some pairing notes I've read say to have it with fish or tapas, but I think that pairing with fresh, unseasoned shellfish would be the way to go. Or in my case, on it's own it's perfectly acceptable. It's an inoffensive, crowd-pleaser that is perfect to polish off while lounging in your beachside chair.
It's not an award winning complex and elegant wine, but like most people, I can appreciate an easy to drink wine where suddenly the bottle is gone.
What I find fascinating about Airén is that it has perfectly adapted to the harsh climates of La Mancha in Spain. We're talking temperatures of 40°c plus and dry, arid conditions. Currently, Spain is undergoing an extreme heat wave with drought, affecting this year's growing season, in which experts are saying that the 2017 vintage could be devastating. But, what about Airén vines that thrive in those conditions? Traditionally for brandy, Spain has produced a high yield with low maintenance. What if the Spanish Airén producers focused less on yield and more on maintenance and high quality practices? Could we see a rise in the popularity and knowledge around this rare yet not rare grape?
In the meantime, I'm going to embrace the short time I have with this varietal and hope to see it rise to higher quality and availability in the future.
Some extra reading & sources
- WineAlign - Buyers' Guide to VINTAGES - July 8. 2017 - Spanish Wine Guide & The Best of the Rest
- CataVino - What is this Grape Airén?
- Jancisrobinson.com - Airén
- Wine-searcher.com - Airén Wine