John B. Reyna
You like Silvaner and I like Sylvaner. Silvaner, Sylvaner, Silvaner, Sylvaner.
You've heard the saying, "Everything old is new again." Wine can definitely attest to that. Ancient production techniques, like the use of clay amphora for fermentation and aging, are now fashionable amongst a new generation of winemakers. And forgotten or ignored varietals are finally being handled with the love and care that was often not afforded to them in the past. Case in point—Silvaner (aka Sylvaner), a white grape that is slowly making a comeback. Don’t worry, I’ll explain the difference in the name shortly.
If you want the short, short version (for you Spaceballs fans), the following video is a summary of what is written below. But we recommend you continue reading if you want the full story.
This white grape variety is known throughout most of the world as Silvaner. However, in Germany, where you’ll find more of it than anywhere else, it is called Grüner Silvaner or Silvaner for short. In Alsace, France, it takes the Sylvaner with a “y” spelling. At the end of the day, if you remember Silvaner or Sylvaner, you’ll likely catch it the next time it comes across your eyes, regardless of the spelling.
Thanks to DNA profiling, we know that Silvaner is the cross of the grape varieties Savagnin (Traminer) and Österreichisch Weiss. Savignin is one of the most important grape varieties in the world based on its lineage of offspring like Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Gruner Veltliner, and others. Yet, it's rarely produced as a stand alone wine outside of Jura, France.
All accounts reflect that the grape originated in Austria. Silvaner then moved to Germany, with the earliest recorded account dating back to 1659 in Franken.
In the first half of the 20th century, it overtook Riesling to become the most planted varietal in Germany. At that time, the region of Rheinhessen was the key area for its popularity and acreage.
Currently, Silvaner is the 4th most planted white variety in Germany. It trails Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, and Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), and is only slightly ahead of Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc).
Rheinhessen still has the largest acreage of Silvaner in Germany. In general, there are two styles of Rheinhessen Silvaner: a soft, fresh, fruity (but not obnoxiously) wine meant for early drinking, and a robust, dry, and highly extracted wine that can cellar for years.
Yet, as important as Rheinhessen is for Silvaner, if you were to pick a Silvaner from anywhere in the world to try, we’d recommend you grab a bottle from Franken, Germany, and seconded by Alsace, France. Thus, we will explore those regions in greater detail below so you can be better equipped to seek out a delicious bottle of Silvaner.
Aromas, flavors, and style
One of Silvaner’s most endearing qualities is how the wines reflect terrior since the grape itself is somewhat of a neutral canvas. André Ostertag, of Domain Ostertag, was quoted as saying Sylvaner is “a wine that whispers rather than shouts.” Still, that doesn’t mean that there are no aromatics. If you are tasting quality wines, you may find peach, honey, melon, passion fruit, orange blossom, thyme, flint, green apple, and pear. But the minerality and earthiness that can shine through the fruit and floral aromatics is what makes this wine special.
Silvaner is usually produced in a medium alcohol level, which gives it extra body. Some producers, like Stefan Vetter in Franken, also let the wine age on lees to add creaminess and dimension. If you want a weightier white wine, then Silvaner will fit the bill. Silvaner is almost always produced in a dry style. That may be comforting to readers who have grabbed a bottle of German Riesling off the shelf only to find that it was semi-sweet or sweet. You can confidently order a bottle of Silvaners/Sylvaner knowing that the bottle will be dry. Still, Silvaner is capable of aging and with aging comes flavors like honey, ginger and dried peach. A Silvaner with a few years on it may taste sweet because of those flavors, but the residual sugar will not be there, and thus, it won’t actually be a sweet or semi-sweet wine.
When thinking about pairing wines with food, it is often wise to think about what you are trying to showcase—the wine or food. When it’s the latter, Silvaner can be a wise pick. Its acidity can hold up to vinaigrettes in a salad or compliment seafood. It’s wonderful with vegetables and especially asparagus.
I want to make a point about the significance of that last sentence, Silvaner pairs well with asparagus. If you weren’t aware, asparagus is notoriously considered one of the hardest foods for wine pairings. Yet, Silvaner takes the top prize here when most other wines falter. In fact, in Rheinhessen, Germany, the locals pair white asparagus and Silvaner as a local delicacy.
Silvaner is also a good wine to pair with a cheese board. The high acidity and medium alcohol allow it to pair well with various styles of cheese, whether hard or soft. And if you find an aged Franken Silvaner, then bring on the blue cheese! The honey notes will pair beautifully with the funk. Yummmmmm!
If you’ve never heard of Franken as a major wine producing region in Germany, you are not alone. Honestly, I'd put my money on more people knowing about Franken being part of beer loving Bavaria. But Franken is the heart of quality German Silvaner production.
Franken has clay-limestone soil, which often imparts a flint aroma to the local Silvaners. There is also sandstone throughout Franken.
Franken’s climate is continental, which means that there is a large difference between the average temperature of the region’s hottest month and its coldest month. Severe winters and spring frosts are common risks affecting grape-growers.
Silvaner accounts for ¼ of all plantings in Franken. Müller-Thurgau is the most planted varietal; however, Silvaner is what brings the boys to the yard. In Franken, it finds growers who truly understand how to extract its greatness. These wines are full-bodied, earthy, minerally complex, with enough fruit and aromatics to give depth but not overshadow the terrior. And that’s one of the key aspects to great Silvaner, it’s not an overly aromatic grape, which is fine when you realize that what it lacks in aromatics it makes up in showcasing its terrior. For those not familiar with the term terroir, it’s an all-encompassing term for the natural environment that includes components like soil, local topography, and macroclimate.
Another fun aspect of Franken Silvaner is that most of the wines are bottled in the unique Bocksbeutal bottle, with known for its flattened flask shape.
Lastly, if you’re looking for a great Franken producer who it pushing Silvaner into the category of must-try, we recommend that you seek out a bottle from Stefan Vetter. The picture below is from our dinner at Nina Compton’s Compère Lapin in NOLA. That wine was superb!
Alsace is one of France’s greatest wine regions, and it specializes in white wines. Thus, it’s no surprise that Sylvaner found a home here while growers elsewhere in France ignored the varietal.
Alsace has a cool to moderate Continental climate. The Vosges mountains produce a rain shadow over Alsace that makes the region dry and often causes draught. However, the ever-present sunshine and lack of rain results in guaranteed ripeness, which is a positive for Sylvaner.
Alsace’s love for Sylvaner has diminished over the last fifty years. Back in 1969, Sylvaner accounted for almost 30% of grapes planted. In 2017, it accounted for just 6% of plantings. Sylvaner doesn’t command the price of the Noble Grapes of Alsace (e.g., Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Muscat), often regulating it to less desirable vineyard locations.
Still, out of the 51 Grand Cru appellations in Alsace, there is one that is solely for Sylvaner—Zotzenberg, which is located in the commune of Mittelbergheim. This Grand Cru plot has Marl-limestone soil with east/west exposition. Here, Sylvaner reaches its aromatic potential while still exhibiting its finesse and terrior. Zotenberg only became a Grand Cru in 2005.
Alsace is renowned for its varied soil structure so it’s difficult to pinpoint what the soil structure would be like for Sylvaner outside of Zotzenberg without looking up the producer.
At its best, Alsatian Sylvaner is full-bodied with a smoky spice and flavors of honey and melon. These wines can age just like those from Franken. Still, there are plenty of basic, early-drinking Sylvaners.
Alsatian Sylvaner doesn’t grace our shores as often as I’d like, but there are still quality producers who are available in the US. Definitely keep an eye out for Domain Ostertag. Ostertag’s Les Vielles Vignes de Sylvaner comes from vines that are 55 years or older and is grown on soil comprised of clay, granite, and gravel. Kermit Lynch imports this beauty and I’d grab a bottle any day of the week. For this post, we drank Albert Seltz’s Sylvaner de Mittelbergheim and enjoyed it. Seltz also produces a wine from the Grand Cru Zotzenberg, but we couldn’t find that at our local wine monger.
Imported to the US
European Silvaner was common in the US until the 1980s. Unfortunately, there was a lot of bad Silvaner coming onto our shores, and Silvaner reputation faltered as a result. It was often seen as a boring wine. In a New York Times article, Pierre Timbach, winemaker at Maison Trimbach in Alsace, stated that “not one bottle [of Trimbach Sylvaner] is shipped to the U.S.” That’s why I did not mention the famous Trimbach winery as one to seek out for Alsatian Sylvaner.
You can also find Silvaner outside of Germany and France. It is grown throughout Central and Eastern Europe. There are also some American producers who are trying their hand at Silvaner. We haven’t had any American Silvaner yet, but we look forward to trying some whenever it crosses our path!
Wines we enjoyed for educational purposes
Hans Wirsching, 2015 Iphofer Kronberg Silvaner Alte Reben, $37
This dry wine was an incredible treat. The wine was already beginning to take on tertiary flavors like petrol, ginger, and hazelnut from its time in the bottle. But there was still plenty of primary aromas and flavors like peach, flint, pear, mint, pineapple, honeysuckle, and apricot. Acidity was medium plus and alcohol came in at 13.5% ABV. The body was medium plus and had a nice rich mouthfeel. The finish was elegant and substantial. This wine will cellar for years to come, but you could also drink it now in its current glory.
Albert Seltz, 2016 Sylvaner de Mittelbergheim, $18
This easy-going wine was delightful for the price point. The wine showcased aromas and flavors of lime, green apple, pear, wet stones, and orange blossom, but these were soft aromatics and not jumping out of the glass. The acidity was medium plus, and the alcohol came in at 13% ABV. The body was medium, and the finish was solid for the price point. This wine's charm is that it would work anywhere and for anyone.
There’s a good chance that you will struggle to find dozens of examples of Silvaner at your local wine shop or restaurant. Again, Silvaner is rebuilding its reputation in the US. Still, the purpose of this post is to provide you with the knowledge to recognize a fun, unique wine the next time you are in the hands of a sommelier or wine monger who specializes in esoteric wines. As we’ve said before, sommeliers often showcase a few off-the-beaten-path wines on their lists in hopes that they can introduce people to the wines they geek out on. That’s how we came across Sylvaner in NOLA. We asked the somm if he had any obscure wines that he was geeking out on, and we were rewarded with Stefan Vetter’s Sylvaner. And now here I am writing about Silvaner to all of you. My hope is that you take the same leap of faith the next time you are buying a bottle of wine.
Sending geeky love to all,