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The Silvaner Grape


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About Silvaner

(Synonyms: Arvine, Arvine Grande, Augustiner Weiss, Beregi Szilvani, Boetzinger, Clozier, Cynifadl Zeleny, Cynifal, Fliegentraube, Franken Riesling, Frankenriesling, Frankentraube, Fueszeres Szilvani, Gamay blanc, GentilvVert, Gros Rhin, Gros-rhin, Gruenedel, Gruenfraenkisch, Gruen Silvaner, Grüner Silvaner, Grüner Sylvaner, Grünfraenkisch, GrünSilvaner, Haeusler Schwarz, Johannisberger, Mishka, Momavaka, Monterey Riesling, Moravka, Movavka, Muschka, Mushza, Musza, Nemetskii Rizling, Oesterreicher, Oestreicher, Pepltraube, Picardonblanc, Picardou blanc, Plant Du Rhin, Rhin, Rundblatt, Salfin, Salfine Bely, Salvaner, Salviner, Scharvaner, Scherwaner, Schoenfeilner, Schwaebler, Schwuebler, Sedmogradka, Sedmogradska Zelena, Selenzhiz, Selivan, Silvanske Zelene, Siylvaner, Sonoma Riesling, Syilvaner, Sylvaner, Sylvaner verde, Sylvaner vert, Sylvan Zeleny, Szilvani Feher, Tschafahnler, Yesil Silvaner, Zelencic, Zeleny, Zierfandler, Zierifandel, Zinifal, Zoeldsilvani, Zoeld Szilvani.)

Background

Map showing central Europe

Silvaner (also quite commonly spelled "Sylvaner") is a very old white-wine grape originating in central Europe, most likely in Transylvania; it is today grown throughout central Europe, most notably in Germany (especially Franconia) and Alsace, but also to some extent in Austria, Switzerland, Croatia, and Slovakia, plus Romania (which today includes the former Transylvania). There have been some experiments in the New World, but little is now grown there.

In Germany, the grape's official name is "Grüner Silvaner"; the spelling "Sylvaner" is generally used in Alsace, Switzerland, and Austria, but is very common elsewhere as well (Wikipedia's article is headed "Silvaner" but uses "Sylvaner" throughout its text).

Silvaner at its best can produce top-quality wines that can go head to head against the greatest white, Riesling; unfortunately, it is not commonly at its best, because the grape's natural vigor coupled with its innately neutral taste easily lead producers to grow it for inexpensive bulk wines. (Great amounts of it go into the bland, fungible Liebfraumilch bottlings once so popular as "cheap wine".) But that same neutrality that leads to blandness when vinification is casual also allows dedicated, careful winemakers to express a good deal of terroir. In Alsace, whose Sylvaners are usually rather simple renditions of the grape, there is one large vineyard (Zotzenberg) whose Sylvaner has special dispensation to be used in Alsace Grand Cru wines.

A Bocksbeutel.

Silvaner wines from the Franconia region of Germany are still typically bottled in the classic Bocksbeutel (shown at the right), though there is a (much regretted) slowly increasing movement away from the shape owing to the difficulties it imposes on long-distance shipping and retail distribution.

Silvaner has, like all the better regional white-wine grapes, a naturally high acidity; in consequence, wines from it will age quite well, but there is also the classic vineyard conundrum of trying to balance off flavor against alcohol content, since the grapes are also naturally high in sugars (so that as they ripen, the flavor increases, but so does the potential alchohol content of the resultant wine). As with so many other grapes like that (Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Scheurebe, and so on), Silvaner is thus often made into an off-dry or dessert wine by stopping the fermentation before it is complete (leaving "residual sugars" in the wine).

The keys to high-quality Silvaner seem to be these: appropriate soils and vineyard location; keeping yields low; and care in harvesting at the optimum moment. Mind, those are qualities needful for any good wine, but they seem especially important with Silvaner, which in modern times was badly overcropped for cheap bulk wines, thus tarnishing the variety's image. When well made, it has a neutral to slightly floral nose, sharp acidity, notable minerality, and a quality often described as "earthiness".

Factoid: In Alsace, Zotzenberg vineyard "Grand Cru" wines may by law consist of Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Sylvaner in any combination. Thus, one could produce a 100% varietal "Sylvaner Grand Cru" from that vineyard—but it could not legally be labelled as such, but rather just "Zotzenberg Grand Cru".


Some Descriptions of Silvaner Wines


Some Silvaners to Try

(About this list.)

Curiously, for a varietal that is generally disdained, prices on select Silvaners are somewhat high—apparently, those who know and appreciate their Silvaners are willing to pay well for them. Below are a few that seem both well-recommended and of plausible pricing.

The quotations below are excerpts; we strenuously urge you to click on the green diamond symbol by each quoted review to see the full article.
Abbazia di Novacella Sylvaner
(Alto Adige Valle Isarco, Italy. This is not their "Praepositus" bottling.)

• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• This wine's CellarTracker review pages.
• This wine's Wine Searcher "Tasting Notes" page.


Some quotations and facts about this wine:

Sylvaner is often called 'the Pinot Noir of white varieties' because it's so difficult to grow well. In its native Germany, Sylvaner usually yields rather pedestrian wines. The 2006 Abbazia di Novacella Sylvaner is excellent. It is dry, yet viscous, and packed with concentrated white fruits and mineral flavors. 92 points.

The 2009 Sylvaner is a standout in this vintage. It shows wonderful detail in freshly cut flowers, mint, peaches and pears. There is a marvelous detail and clarity in the glass. The Sylvaner is more restrained than the Kerner – and perhaps a touch less showy – but not one bit less intriguing. 90 points.

♣ Wine Advocate: 2009 vintage, 90 points; 2008 vintage, 88 points.

Aged partly in large casks, this has aromas that recall white flowers, stone fruit, chamomile, subtle oak and flint. The palate offers yellow apple, lemon zest, white peach and smoky graphite alongside fresh acidity. 88 points.

At the present day, the Abbazia achieves its greatest successes with grapes that don’t fare so well in other places. Sylvaner, an originally Austrian vine which in Alsace and Germany usually makes a fairly straightforward, ordinary wine, here yields a much more nuanced juice with nice hints of complexity and much more evident structure. . . Forest floor (what Italians call sottobosco) aromas, plus flowers. Diane suggested also mirabelles, those delectable yellow plums so loved in Alsace. Nutty and floral palate. Excellent acidity, though still round in the mouth. Long-finishing. Very fine.

Three of the Italian [Sylvaner] wines were particularly good, including two from the Abbazia di Novacella winery: a refreshing and light Sylvaner ($22) and their Praepositus ($35) that was more minerally, with a bit of an earthy note.

Light yellow color with green highlights, fresh fruity aromas of pear and melon. Good-bodied and with a decisive minerality and dry taste.

Straw/greenish colour. Typical steel. Clean nose, quite leafy and greenish with some stone. Uncomplicated and nice sylvaner-nose. Medium bodied and again the lightly greeny sylvaner-fruit with a slight bitterness in the finish. A little mineral. Medium acids and length. Some alcohol in the finish. Nice sylvaner.

Celestino Lucin, winemaker for Abbazia di Novacella, an abbey in Italy's Alto Adige region that dates to 1142, is renowned for his white wines. This Sylvaner from the 2010 vintage is no exception. The grapes are grown on steep hillsides surrounding the abbey. Yields are low. And the result is this complex Sylvaner with a flowery bouquet and mineral undertow. It tastes of honey and pear, and its crisp acidity makes it an ideal food wine.



Dr. Heyden "Alte Reben" Trocken Silvaner
(Rheinhessen, Germany.)

• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• This wine has two different sets of CellarTracker review pages:
     » first page; and
     » second page.
• This wine's Wine Searcher "Tasting Notes" page.


Some quotations and facts about this wine:

White peach and apple blossoms perfume this dancingly brisk Silvaner. Crisp nectarine and lime penetrate the palate, along with a refreshing sheen of minerality that extends the finish. 89 points, a Best Buy.

Here is a steal, an Old Vine Silvaner from the Rheinhessen for under $15, this is intense and interesting stuff with good character and depth… The 2011 is ripe, being from a warm vintage and is well crafted, they used stainless steel in the fermentation process then aged it in large oak cask, giving the wine a rich detail and a golden hue with nice vigor, cut and length. The Dr. Heyden Silvaner flows with key lime, peach, nectarine and kumquat with an almost Riesling feel showing a firm acid profile and mineral essence along with flinty spice and savory elements, this is crisp, taught and dry Silvaner at it’s value priced best! This is certainly a wine to enjoy now, but can age another few years easy…

Old vine Silvaner is a true rarity in Germany's Rheinhessen. While it remains the second most planted grape (after Riesling) in Germany and counts among its siblings some of the most famous white grapes of all (Chenin Blanc and Grüner Veltliner to name only two), it has always been in the shadows. In fact some have even accused it of neutrality. So, Frank Heyden quietly makes this from old vines, and the quality shines so brightly that all shadows disappear in a fresh, zesty, mouth-wateringly delicious wash of Silvaner-ish-ness. Juicy and floral from start to finish, this is a great example of coaxing the best from a grape.

Hay, ripe apples, a hint of vegetable, soft without being boneless, nicely typical of the grape, mild but stable acidity. What can I say? Very good, supremely drinkable wine.

Tasting Notes (vividwine style) — Nose: Standing in a huge, stone cathedral with the scent of race cars that have just raced through and the evidence of honeycomb stuck to their tires. Palate: The walls of my mouth turn to glass with mango sorbet sheeting down the sides while maintaining a cool, clean sensation down the middle of my palate.



Hans Wirsching Silvaner Dry/Trocken
Wirsching 'Trocken' label (Wirsching has numerous Silvaners, easily conflated; the label for this bottling is shown at the right.)

• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• This wine's CellarTracker review pages.
• This wine's Wine Searcher "Tasting Notes" page.


Some quotations and facts about this wine:

When you dip your nose into your glass, the first thing that hits you is the lovely minerality emanating from the wine. Then aromas of citrus, white blossom and pear fill your nostrils. This Silvaner might not be powerfully aromatic, but it’s very pleasing, conjuring up a spring breeze. On the palate, those subtle aromas expand in the most delicious way, framed by a juicy acidity that makes you salivate. The citrus notes are refreshing and lean towards mellow lemon, while distinct notes of Bosc pear follow. There are some delicate herbal elements of anise and fennel as well. What’s most enticing about the Wirsching Silvaner is how pleasing the wine feels in the mouth. It’s round, silky-smooth and absolutely succulent. Although highly sippable on its own, the Silvaner would pair marvelously with anything.

I had a few Silvaners from Germany. The one that really stood out was the delightfully floral 2012 Weingut Hans Wirsching Iphöfer Silvaner Trocken. It had a dry, mineral finish and a profile that one friend called "yummy." At $17 a bottle, it was also a good deal.

Despite the significant problems in the Franken in 2011, the end result were wines of clarity and power, at same time as great finesse—in short, some superb wines. I particularly liked the Wirsching collection, which seemed to have layers of citrus, honey and mineral notes.

[V]ery good. Higher toned minerality than the basic estate Silvaner. Very elegant and complex already. Lovely little wine.

Very pale, almost watery color. The nose showed zesty citrus notes and a green/herbal character that reminded me a little bit of young Chablis. On the palate this is quite light in body but packs a lot of flavor. I would guess that there is just a hint of residual sugar left to provide a counterweight to the truly zingy acidity that follows and really grips the palate. The finish is there, but nothing special. In sum, a very refreshing bottle for those looking for a crisp white.

2012 Silvaner Trocken (dry), which shows some pretty citrus and floral notes with just a touch of pineapple rind. It’s dry on the palate with a medium-light body and a perfectly refreshing appeal.

A light, direct steely nose. Decent minerally palate. Good easy drinking at a fair price.

This product of Silvaner grapes is dry and bold, with a crisp minerality which will pair well with seafood and cheese.



For a Splurge

One can spend a great deal of money on some of the more elevated specimens of Silvaner, but one that is much praised but not absolutely astronomical in price is the Peter Pliger "Kuenhof" Sudtirol Eisacktaler Sylvaner. It's only a hair better than what's listed above (by reviewer point counts), but also isn't wildly more expensive.

• That wine at 1000 Corks
• That wine at Wine Searcher
• Its Wine Searcher "Tasting Notes" page.
• Its CellarTracker pages.

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