Silvaner, a Lovely yet Unloved Spring Wine, Needs Friends
Posted May 15, 2018 9:55 p.m. EDT
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?” 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.”
Ostertag shares the belief that the biggest problem for the grape has been the abundance of bad wine. In Alsace, he said, it was seen as an everyday wine and, as a result, growers and producers did not take it seriously. In the vineyard, they valued quantity over quality. Winemaking was slapdash and prices were low.
“Overcropping, quick and fast winemaking and no marketing was the vision for sylvaner,” he said. “Not really the best way to produce a serious wine.”
The market was quick to judge. Even in France, Ostertag said, sales dropped. Growers who found themselves losing money on the grape replaced it with more profitable varieties. In Alsace in 2017, silvaner accounted for just about 6 percent of the grapes planted, said Marie Zusslin, who, with her brother, Jean-Paul, oversees Domaine Valentin Zusslin. That’s down from almost 30 percent in 1969. Zusslin’s Bollenberg Sylvaner is lively, energetic, gentle and savory, but it, too, is not currently sold in the United States. “I think they trust in it,” Zusslin said of her American importers, “but the market is not that simple.”
Geoffroy Ducroux of Avant Garde Wine and Spirits, Zusslin’s importer in the New York region, said that while he might eventually bring in the Zusslin silvaner, his priority was to establish a market for their rieslings and a pinot noir.
“I do think there is a market for silvaner,” he said. “Why not, if the wine is good? Obviously, it’s a niche.”
Like Ostertag, Zusslin believes the future of silvaner requires diligent, conscientious farming and a belief in the importance of the grape, which she called “an underdog that only needs good care to fully reveal itself.”
“Because it is deeply rooted in our tradition, we have to keep it alive and to give it as much care as we can,” she said by email. “Even more when you think about all it has to offer when you put enough effort in its growing and vinification.”
The choices in New York stores for silvaner fans are sadly few, but I highly recommend five very different expressions. Ostertag’s 2015 is a classic Alsace interpretation: sedate, floral and as clear as a cloudless day in the country. From alpine Alto Adige, Muri-Gries, housed in an ancient but still functioning Benedictine monastery, makes a richer style of silvaner, more textured yet clean and vibrant with aromas and flavors of apricots, herbs and flowers.
As different as those two wines may be, they are in an alternate universe from the 2013 Bergweingarten, made by the Alsace natural-wine producer Pierre Frick. Bottled under a crown cap and made with a minimal amount of sulfur dioxide, the almost universally used stabilizer, the Bergweingarten is the most unusual silvaner I’ve had, with an aroma that seemed to combine apricots with pineapples. On the palate, it was lively, pure, deep and refreshing. Call it singular or call it crazy, it was delicious either way.
From the Franken region of Germany, Stefan Vetter makes little but silvaner. Of his range, I’ve tried his basic bottle, fresh, pure, textured and fragrant; and his top bottle, the Rosenrain, from vines planted in 1934, which is deep and intense, with flavors more mineral than herbal that linger endlessly in the mouth. The Rosenrain, about $75, is the most expensive silvaner I’ve seen. The other bottles are all about $20. Sadly, I have not been able to find any silvaners from the Zotzenberg vineyard, the only site in Alsace where silvaner can rise to grand cru status, reserved in the region for vineyards deemed to be excellent matches between place and grape. Such grand crus abound for riesling, gewürztraminer, pinot gris and muscat, but silvaner from Zotzenberg earned the right to that status only after local growers put up a battle.
Ostertag says he sees a renaissance coming for silvaner, citing the Zotzenberg victory, though that goes back to 2001. He also senses a revived affection for the wine in Alsace because it is so easygoing and companionable, and goes well with food, particularly fish, cheese and vegetable dishes. He sees evidence in his own home.
“The proof is my wife uses it every day for cooking,” he said. “Not any more for the sauce, but for the cook.”