Silvaner, a Lovely yet Unloved Spring Wine, Needs Friends~NYTimes

By Eric Asimov, May 10th, 2018 THE POUR

"With the overwhelming number of wines available today from all over the world, in a vast diversity of styles, many made from grapes virtually unknown a generation ago, consumers have had to resort to shortcuts and workarounds to slice through the confusion.

Some buy only wines made from familiar grapes that have been critically praised over time. Others are more adventurous, as long as the wines come from well-known producers or established importers. A few try to track what’s new and exciting in wine bars, shops and restaurants.

Occasionally, wines that have much to offer are cast aside simply because they meet none of those artificial criteria. Their presence in the marketplace ebbs. They come to be seen as stuffy, old-fashioned or obsolete.

With this in mind, I would like to make the case for silvaner, a grape and a wine that has few champions and could use one badly.

Silvaner is a white grape of German origin, though I’ve seen many more bottles in the United States from Alsace, where it is spelled sylvaner, than from Germany. It is also found throughout Central Europe under myriad spellings and names, and in Italy, primarily Alto Adige, the Tyrolean region in the northeast, where it is again simply called silvaner.

What does it have to offer? To my mind, silvaner is a perfect wine for spring: light, fragrant, gentle and almost shy, like the first buds emerging from a bare tree branch. It is classically dry, light and graceful, moderate in alcohol and touched with herbal and floral notes. This is a perfect lunchtime wine — easy to have a glass or two and still be productive the rest of the day.

Silvaner was far more popular back when it was not considered shocking to enjoy some wine in the middle of the day. A hundred years ago, it was the most commonly planted grape in Germany, but it is now fifth, well behind the highly deserving riesling, as well as Müller-Thurgau, a nondescript white, and two reds, spätburgunder, or pinot noir, and dornfelder, which has the potential to be interesting.

Likewise, silvaner was once fairly common in the United States, as recently as the 1980s. While the wine has not disappeared, it now takes some effort to track down a bottle. Many of those wines used to come from Alsace, a region that, like silvaner, has seen better days in the American marketplace.

“We used to sell a lot of silvaner in the United States,” Pierre Trimbach, who oversees the winemaking at Maison Trimbach, told me when I visited last year. At Trimbach, one of the oldest and largest wine producers in Alsace, those days are over. “Now?” Mr. Trimbach said. “Not one bottle is shipped to the U.S.” What happened? He suggested the problem was that an overwhelming amount of bad silvaner had been sent to the United States, which had essentially turned off the American market. It’s too bad, because Trimbach’s 2016 Sylvaner, tasted in France, was lovely, fresh and springlike, yet with a savory, almost saline note that punctuated it perfectly.

The grape may have no bigger advocate than André Ostertag, the proprietor of Domaine Ostertag, whose 2015 Vieilles Vignes de Sylvaner, which most definitely is available in the United States, is bright and shimmering, floral and herbal, with depth and zest.

“It’s not the caviar, it’s the butcher and the baker,” he said of silvaner last year, meaning the wine is foundational to the culture of Alsace.

“Alsatian food is based on white wine, and the wine used for sauces and macerations was sylvaner,” he said by email recently. “That’s why I say sylvaner flows in my veins. Since I was in my mother’s womb I was drinking sylvaner…”

Might get more love if it was put in a differently-shaped bottle.

Cool topic!!! :slight_smile:

I had several varietal whites from Trimbach in my retail days. They were decent and held up surprisingly well for ~$20 dry Riesling, Muscat, and Pinot Blanc, Gewürztraminer.

An Alsatian winery that really captivated me was Kuentz Bas. Their 100% Auxerrois, was just okay. However, the $12/btl Kuentz BasBlanc” (60% Sylvaner, 15% Muscat, 15% Auxerrois, 10% Chasselas) was significantly better than the Trimbach varietally-bottled whites that were twice the price.

If I am not mistaken, Sylvaner is interplanted among other white grape varieties in the “Wirz Vineyard” in Cienega Valley as well as Sonoma’s “Compagni-Portis Vineyard”. Rancho Sisquoc in SBC offers a “Flood Family Vineyard” Sylvaner for $16/btl. I don’t know anything about this producer.

Here’s another article on the grape (Scribe apparently is growing its own Sylvaner)…

SF Examiner
“Sylvaner Has Deep History at Home and Abroad”
by Pamela S. Busch
September 19, 2014

A lot of sylvaner was planted in the 60s and 70s and was also called franken riesling and sylvanier riesling. Of course, we also had grey riesling and emerald riesling. With the decline of what we called johannisberg riesling, white riesling and just plain riesling, the pseudo rieslings seem to have fallen by the wayside.

HMR planted a lot of it–i think they called it franken riesling—not a big seller.

Claude Kolm turned me on to some excellent sylvaners from Franconia. They can be quite complex.

In Alsace, two of the growers that I represent make benchmark examples of Sylvaner at its best:
Dirler Cadé
Agathe Bursin

I second Mel’s/Claude’s Franconia recommendation, as it is one of the heartlands of the grape variety, many/most of which bottled in that funny “goat’s balls” bottle.

Or if the majority of wine drinkers were not so closed minded.

Bottle shape does not help.

I don’t think the majority of wine drinkers are close minded when it comes to Silvaner. I think it’s a case of being naive and/or no retail exposure for the varietal. A quick check on CT currently shows less than 4,900 bottles of Silvaner. That’s microscopic. How is the casual wine drinker supposed to know about or support it if it’s nowhere to be found?

Chicken and egg. Why would retailers devote shelf space to wines that are difficult to sell?


Yes, very interesting topic, and good point to those who suggest that the bottle shape might be part of the ‘problem’. Varietals go in and out of fashion, though, as we’ve seen even just in wine production within this country. I think Gruner Vetliner has had a mini-renaissance of sorts, scarcely enjoyed a decade ago, more so now. Perhaps some of this is due to the new fad status of higher-end Rieslings, with folks looking for a solid, inexpensive, and always-reliable substitute, drier than Riesling but just as flexible.

I’ve liked quite a few Franken Silvaners. But probably my best experience was a Kuenhof recommended by the somm (Levi D) at the old Alto on a night when I had a limited budget- crisp, different, and food friendly.
I’ve never really had an Alsatian sylvaner that I loved.

Abbazia di Novacella makes a decent Sylvaner, but when it comes down to pulling a bottle off the shelf, I’d chose their Kerner instead.

I found a sylvaner for a customer to replace one we stopped buying. Rudolf May, it’s Franken too. Comes in a standard shaped bottle for $12. I’ll have to take one home.

We import a Sylvaner from Vincent Fleith that I consider excellent (duh or I wouldn’t import it) and I have to say it’s been a slog, though that seems to be changing ever so slightly finally. Buyers like it, the bottle shape, the label, the price, etc… yet don’t pick it up for fear of not being able to sell it or of it being a hand-sell.

Someone above said it’s a chicken and egg situation, and that’s completely correct. The average drinker doesn’t know Sylvaner, and there’s lots of cheap stuff out there that’s damaged the reputation for quality wines.

Hopefully this article will move the needle a bit, as Eric’s tend to do sometimes.

I happen to like Franken silvaner quite a lot, Alsacian not so far; I think Mr. Asimov describes it very well. However, this is only because I tried a few several years ago on a trusted recommendation, I never would have found (or probably bought) them locally.

For almost my entire 40+ years of adult life, silvaner has simply been presented as another “secondary” German grape taking up otherwise valuable vineyard space…

Best Silvaner (or Sylvaner) I’ve ever had is Feuervogel from KP Keller - loads of character and personality

I’ve only had one, from Alsace’s Boxler and it was very good, no surprise considering the source.

I haven’t sampled a vintage in 15 years, but Rancho Sisquoc is a domestic producer of Sylvaner. It’s made in a sweeter style (1.5% RS) these days.

Scribe makes a killer version. Great Easter wine paired with Honey- Pecan glazed ham.

I haven’t had a Silvanrr for 40 years. I’d be a hard sell, as they were pretty feeble back then

Pacherhof’s Sylvaner Alte Reben was an excellent version, although I haven’t had it in a few years.