In August 2020, growers in the expansive Spanish appellation of Valdepeñas went on strike; two of Spain’s largest producers, Garcia Carrion and Felix Solis, wanted a discount of 30 percent levied at the standard price for a kilo of grapes. The buyer’s rationale was simple: Covid-19 has decimated wine sales to the Spanish hospitality sector, while bulk wine exports fell by 17.7 percent in volume during the first half of 2020.
After some difficult negotiations, both parties settled on raising grape prices by 27 percent over the initial offer made by GC and Felix Solis. The town at the heart of the dispute, Valdepeñas, is situated in Spain’s main bulk wine region, Castilla La Mancha. A barren and arid region found south of Madrid, it accounts for almost two-thirds of the production of cheap wine.
Yet the region’s most ubiquitous grape variety, Airén, was curiously excluded from the bargaining agreement.
Airén is certainly not very glamorous, or indeed famous, outside of Spain. However, it is a widely planted white grape and a vital component of Spain’s lucrative brandy industry. The nation produces approximately 80m bottles of brandy every year; Mexico and the Philippines are key export destinations. Unlike France’s Cognac producers, Spanish firms generally market their brands at lower price points, avoiding the luxury segment. Nevertheless, brandy is an important Spanish export and one that largely relies on the cultivation of Airén.
But why was the grape not part of the grower/buyer negotiations?
One answer lies in the significant – often inflated – yields normally achieved by custodians of the grape. Airén is not widely considered to be a ‘fine’ grape variety; its resistance to drought and disease, low cost and neutral taste profile have made it a grape largely destined for distilling and bulk blends. In one sense, it is a gift to growers; the inflated yields help to offset a very low average price of under €0.20 per kilo. Of course, Airén’s ubiquity is also its curse. Spanish growers in premium regions are also struggling to sell grapes during the pandemic; Airén is too prolific to enable farmers to bargain for higher prices. There is no shortage of supply.
Today, Airén is still one of the world’s most commonly planted white grape varieties in terms of surface area; around 80 percent of Airén plantings are in Spain and more specifically Castilla La Mancha, with most of the rest in neighbouring Portugal. However, the vineyards of La Mancha have been changing just as dramatically as the rest of Spain’s viticultural landscape with a marked conversion from light- to dark-skinned varieties from the late 1990s. By 2005, more than two-thirds of all the wine made in this vast region was red. Airén has been a notable casualty of this colour conversion. This is despite the grape’s colourful history: Airén, also known as Lairén in southern Spain, became part of a political project initiated by the Fascist dictator Franco. During the years of great poverty that gripped Spain in the 20th century, Franco offered to buy brandy produced by Spain’s struggling farmers and businesses. Producers needed a high-yielding, robust grape to satisfy this demand and Airén provided an obvious solution. The acreage rose dramatically and continued to climb, reaching a peak in the year 2000.
“Our latest figures show that there are 208,697 hectares of Airén planted in Spain,” says Rafael del Rey, director general of the Spanish wine market observatory (OeMv). “Its decline has been remarkable: around 130,000 hectares have been ripped out since the year 2000,” a nearly 40 percent decrease. “By way of comparison, Tempranillo plantings have increased by 70 percent over the past two decades,” adds del Rey. In addition to Castilla La Mancha, there is a small volume of Airén planted in Andalucia, the Madrid region, Murcia and Valencia.
Rafael del Rey explains that the overall decline in wine sales to the Spanish on-trade over the past 20 years has diminished the need for large volumes of cheap blending material, although domestic retail sales have stayed relatively buoyant. In addition, the demand for Spanish brandy has grown in several markets. This helps to explain why Airén is still Spain’s most widely planted grape variety.
Historically, large firms and cooperatives would make an alcoholic but pale red wine composed of Airén blended with some red grapes. The key producers of still wines made from Airén are BACO, Virgen de las Viñas, Jesús del Perdón Co-op Manzanares, Vinícola de Tomelloso, Felix Solis and Garcia Carrion. Typically, fortified wines and spirits also form part of their portfolio. A large percentage of still Airén wines are consumed within Spain, sold in supermarkets at very low prices. They are quickly and cheaply made in Castilla La Mancha. Other Airén blends/single varietal wines find their way into bulk wine exports, according to del Rey.
However, the vast majority of Airén destined for brandy production is shipped to the town of Jerez de la Frontera, in Andalucia.
The brandy story
Over 95 percent of all brandy produced in Spain is aged and bottled in the dusty, ancient cellars of the region’s Sherry houses. In Jerez, there are over 25 producers, or bodegas, producing brandy in the ‘Sherry triangle’ formed by the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. The rules are fairly relaxed: Brandy de Jerez must be aged in used Sherry barrels, however, the spirit can be distilled at a different location and based on grape(s) grown in other regions.
“We have been growing Airén since the last century for our leading Brandy brand Soberano,” says Eugeni Brotons, global marketing director at Gonzalez Byass. “Airén loves hot-dry conditions — poor soils in La Mancha made it the obvious choice of grape variety. The vine’s high yields and low maintenance make it straightforward to cultivate and it is easy to handle in the winery.”
Brotons considers Airén a vital part of Spain’s distillation industry. He describes “a wine of moderate expression,” which produces great quantities of esters and alcohol. “This means that during the distillation and ageing process distinctive aromatic characteristics develop.” He says these are extremely expressive and “give the smoothness that defines excellent Brandy de Jerez”. More aromatic varietals like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc do not offer this ability.
Indeed, Airén finds no welcome home in the premium wine market, yet it is enjoyed by millions of consumers as a high-quality spirit. According to Gonzalez Byass, the key markets for their brandy are the UK, China, Russia and the Eastern European nations. Since the pandemic crisis began, Spanish firms have seen overall brandy sales increase in key markets, the exception being the Philippines and Spain.
“Brandy is a home consumption drink in many cases, and we have had very good results in Mexico, UK, and Eastern Europe,” says Brotons. “Airén is the queen of grapes for distillation.”
The vast majority of still wine producers would agree. While it is true that a perfectly drinkable and acceptable white wine can be obtained from Airén, it typically lacks aromatic complexity and structure. There are new ideas and pioneering winemakers however: in 2005, a sparkling blend of Viura and Airén from La Mancha won a medal at a leading international tasting. More recently at an international competition in Belgium, several Airén wines impressed their judges, according to del Rey. “Airén is very much appreciated for the production of alcohol and must but, under good elaboration, it can also be used to make higher quality wines,” he says. “Recent tastings in Belgium have demonstrated this. There are an increasing number of good whites being made from Airén.”
However, Daniel Mettyear, a research director at the IWSR, argues that the grape’s future is far from certain. The vast majority of Airén used for still wine production is sold at woefully low prices.
The global pandemic has severely affected sales of Spanish bulk wine; shipments to China and Canada fell by 92 percent and 66 percent respectively in May. Sales in the Russian market did no better – they declined by 80 percent in April and then 97 percent in May. Moreover, faced with difficult conditions and an aggressive buyer’s market, growers may increasingly swap Airén for more commercially viable grape varieties.
“Increasing demand for alternative varietals had seen Airén production and plantings plummet from close to 390,000ha in 2000 to just over 184,000ha in 2016,” says Mettyear. “Airén was previously the world’s most widely planted varietal.”
Rafael del Rey says there is no doubt that Airén plantings will decrease. “The explanation has most to do with the transformation that is taking place in the Spanish wine sector,” says del Rey. “Spain’s wine industry is moving from a highly subsidised production model – where a large part of it was used for distillation – to a more commercial sector dependent on bottled exports, increasingly focused on premium wines.”
Yet the Sherry producers insist that Airén must remain an important part of Spain’s viticultural landscape - as long as domestic and global consumers have a thirst for Spanish brandy.
“Airén is just perfect and essential for distillation in Spain,” says Brotons. “Over a number of years, we have experimented exhaustively with highly aromatic white varietals in soleras under the veil of flor and we have never really achieved good results. No other grape does it better.”
Airén may be considered an ignoble part of Spain’s premium wine scene, but the grape is far from an irrelevance to the world’s consumers.