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 role for 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.
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.
Want to learn more about wine? Follow Robert Parker's Wine Advocate on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, or go to robertparker.com.
More articles from this author
Reviewers’ Favorites 2021: Stephan Reinhardt
From Wine Journal
Considering memorable wines from the past year, Stephan Reinhardt details a few of his favorites, including a value Riesling from the Mosel, a sustainable Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley and a special NV blend from Austria produced to celebrate the 850th anniversary of the winery!