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…”