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The Silvaner Grape

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About Silvaner

(Synonyms: Bálint, Gros Rhin, Grüner Silvaner, Grüner Zierfandler, Johannisberg, Österreicher, Österreichisch, Roter Silvaner, Salfin, Silvain Vert, Silvanic Zeleni, Silvánske Zelené, Sylnaver, Sylvaner Verde, Sylvanske Zelené, Zeleni Silvanec, Zierfandi, Zöld Szilváni)


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 also 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 those 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”.

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Some Descriptions of Silvaner Wines

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Some Silvaners to Try

(About this list.)

The list of reasonable candidate bottlings for this varioety is steadily shrinking, between falling evaluations, rising prices, and shrinking market availability. What we show below is about it, even flexing our parameters a bit.

Abbazia di Novacella Sylvaner
(This is not their upscale “Praepositus” bottling.)

• This wine’s Wine Searcher “Reviews” page.
• This wine’s CellarTracker review pages.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks.

Hans Wirsching “Dry Trocken” Silvaner
(Wirsching has numerous Silvaners, easily conflated; this is their basic “Dry/Trocken” bottling.)

• This wine’s Wine Searcher “Reviews” page.
• This wine’s CellarTracker review pages.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks.

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For a Splurge

We found no Silvaner enough better than those listed above as to justify a “splurge” price.

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