A Brief History of the Sylvaner Grape

In Germany, Sylvaner is anything but a rare grape variety. In fact, this centuries-old cross of Traminer and the now largely unknown Österreichisch Weiss played a prominent for during hundreds of years in Germany—as well as  in Alsace, Switzerland (where today it is better known as Johannisberger), the Val d’Isarco of Alto Adige (Northern Italy) and certainly Austria. These are all countries that used to be part of the imperial and royal monarchy until its sinking in 1918. It is here where the story of Sylvaner most probably began.

In the world of wine, there is almost no country more proud of a grape that used to be the "star" of each field blend, back in the good old days before the two World Wars. Sylvaner lost its excellent reputation of being vigorous, robust and savory during the second half of the last century, when it was planted as a monovarietal (like almost all the other modern grape varieties) and cropped with much too high yields. Its plantings have lost acreage dramatically since the 1960s, where as the Pinot varieties (Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and now even Pinot Noir)—as well as Chardonnay Riesling, Grüner Veltliner and even Sauvignon Blanc—took over in the vineyards. Although you can find several first-class, old-vine Sylvaners today in Alsace, Alto Adige and Valais (Switzerland), the reputation is not great and it is rarely identified in official statistics anymore. 

However, Germany is an exception. Sylvaner—or Silvaner, the German “i” was introduced after World War I—has been cultivated in Castell/Franconia since at least 1659 and still holds roughy 5,000 hectares (or 5%) of the total vineyard acreage. Seventy-five percent of the total is produced in just two wine regions: Rheinhessen (2,350 hectares) and Franken (1,425 hectares). In Rheinhessen, where the grape is grown on rather deep clay and loess soils, only very few Sylvaner are on the highest level of quality; while in Franken, the variety is qualified for the "VDP Grosses Gewächs“ (grand cru) status and brings some of Germany’s finest dry white wines next to Riesling. The most famous ones are the Sylvaners from the shell limestone soils of the Würzburger Stein (Bürgerspital and Juliusspital). With that being said, readers shouldn't miss the Stettener Stein from Ludwig Knoll or the single-vineyard Sylvaners from Zehnthof Luckert, Stumpf, Rainer Sauer and Horst Sauer (all on limestone). You should also try the ones from Wirsching, Johann Ruck and Weltner (made from Sylvaner grown on Keuper marl soils). There are also some great Sylvaners produced from red sandstone in the Franken, but these are not really exported out of Germany.

It’s not easy to make any generalizations about the flavor profile of Sylvaner. More often than not, mouthfeel characterizes Sylvaner better than its bouquet does. Whether fermented and aged in stainless steel or in large traditional oak barrels, Sylvaner is an elegant, subtle, well-balanced and digestible wine. It is made in different,y mostly dry styles: appetizing, fresh and light, sometimes similar to Riesling; full-bodied, gentle and rich, similar to top Grüner Veltliners from the Danube River in Lower Austria; and incomparably noble-sweet if it comes from Horst Sauer.

One thing is true: Sylvaner is always a distinctive expression of a particular place. In the Franken, Sylvaner is planted in the best vineyards, and beyond Riesling, there is almost no other grape variety that reflects its specific origin so precisely. Due to its elegant and gentle acidity, Sylvaner is a perfect match with food. Try it next to dishes like asparagus and salad, sweet water fish, and pork or veal. Lighter, dry styles are great with sausage, bread and even cheese.

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