Airén is as infamous perhaps for the innocuous wines that it produces, as it is known for the sheer largesse of its plantings. Indeed, Airén is the most highly planted wine grape in hectarage terms, in the world. The distinction between sheer hectarage in the case of Airén, and international ubiquity in the case of Chardonnay, however, is a distinction that needs to be made. This is because the global popularity of Chardonnay reflects a grape variety capable of a multitude of expressions across quality tiers: commercially viable wines that serve as transparent transmitters of site when at their best; to wines hewn with a bevy of winemaking tools and trickery in other instances.
Conversely, shabby little Airén remains an indigenous Spanish white wine grape variety that is capable of little but simple wine. Languorous in its flabbiness; dull in its mildly citric taste; chewy in its 'skinsy' texture; Airén offers few virtues aside from its low price and resistance to drought.
It is not surprising therefore that Airén is mostly planted in the arid, highly irrigated and largely uninspiring vinous landscape of la Mancha, just outside of Madrid. Here, industrial winemaking rules. The cold, stainless steel tanks that mark the horizon are not so different to the scenery of South East Australia's engine room regions. Airén's neutrality also lends itself to distillation although even then, the variety's inherently low acidity fails to render high quality spirit.
What Airén does boast though is European heritage and availability. This is attractive, it would seem, to the likes of Japan Airlines. Bankruptcy and cost-cutting are synonymous with the use of varietal labeled Airén in the carrier's economy class.