Body: Generally, light to medium (can be full)
Dry / Sweet: Dry
Acidity: Medium to high
Age: Drink as soon as possible, ideally within a year or two of release.
Aka: Also known as Sylvaner (in Alsace), Grüner Sylvaner, Sylván Zeleny, Franken Riesling, Johannisberger, Rhin, Gros Rhin, Osterreicher and Gentil Vert.
Silvaner (sill-VAN-ner), is an old grape variety whose name is derived from the Latin silva, meaning forest. It has an interesting history and in the past, based on its name, it was thought to have originated in Transylvania in Romania, where it has long been grown. This now seems very likely, as DNA analysis has reveled that it is a cross between Traminer and Osterreichisch Weiss – the latter means “Austrian White” and Transylvania was once under Austrian control.
From its central European homeland, Silvaner made its way to Germany as early as the 17th century and then on to Alsace (where it is spelt Sylvaner), Switzerland and northern Italy. Plantings reached their peak in the 1970s with its use as a “workhorse grape”, when it represented one third of all the vines grown in Germany and one quarter of those in Alsace. Since then Silvaner’s fortunes have reversed dramatically – its association with low quality Liebfraumilch in the 70s and 80s was a key factor – and its presence now is significantly lower than it once was.
Its appeal for winemakers in cooler northern regions is that it ripens early (two weeks earlier than Riesling), is very high yielding and has good natural acidity. These attributes are ideal for making low cost bulk wine, which is the reason Silvaner was once the largest planted vine in Germany in the past. However, to dismiss Silvaner as a jug wine would be a mistake. When grown on good sites, with low yields and made with care, it can possess great charm and make a wonderful food wine. Silvaner is never complex and what marks it out from other grapes is its rather neutral and understated flavor profile, which makes it, along with Riesling, one of the best wines in expressing the terroir in which it is grown.
So what can you expect from a good Silvaner? They are subtle and refreshing with a light floral bouquet, accompanied by notes of citrus fruits and herbs. On the palate delicate flavors of green apple, lemon, pear and honeydew melon are infused with earthy undertones and mineral notes, leading to a crisp finish. Occasionally, they can exhibit a slight spritz, or pétillant, effect. The better examples are very refined and elegant. These wines are best when young and dry (trocken), so drink them as soon as possible after release.
Most Silvaner today is grown at high yields to produce low cost wines for blending. The Franken region of Germany is an exception as they specialize in Silvaner, which actually performs better in this region than Riesling. Some good varietal wines are also made in Alsace, the Valais region of Switzerland and Alto Adige in northern Italy. Silvaner is widely grown in central and eastern Europe, as well as Russia, but it doesn’t feature prominently in any wine regions and is generally used for blending. It has very little presence in the New World, although there are some vines in Australia and California.
Although Silvaner is not a fashionable wine, many people like it as its understated flavor and crispness, combined with its earthy and mineral qualities, make it a great food wine – especially with fish and shellfish. After all, there is a very good reason why almost all of the Silvaner made in Franken, in Germany, is consumed locally.
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