Silvaner: Where Will this White Wine Grape Pop Up Next?

Adventures with Weird Wine Grapes

There are 1,368 varieties covered in Master of Wine Jancis Robinson's Wine Grapes. Bet you can't try them all.

Note from the author: There are 1,368 varieties covered in Wine Grapes by MW Jancis Robinson, MW Julia Harding, and Dr. Jose Vouillamoz. Bet you can't try them all.


Two bottles of Sylvaner from Alsace, ready for dim sum. [Photograph: Stevie Stacionis]

They say life is short. But day to day, I would argue, life in fact is really long. If we're lucky, and if we take advantage of the opportunity, we're granted days upon weeks upon months to try new things, make different decisions, turn left rather than stay right, or just ride the good wave and see where it takes us. Who knows, we might pop up anywhere.

Look at Silvaner: This acid-driven white wine grape has been at it for over 500 years, and has changed gears, reinvented itself and worn any number of hats. Its future looks bright—and long.

Wine Grapes says that Silvaner was a natural cross, occurring in Austria sometime before the 1600s, between parent grapes Savagnin and Österreichisch Weiss. The Germans took it in as one of their own, and there it ruled for many years as the most important and most planted grape, covering roughly 30% of German vineyards. Today, German preference has changed (only about 5% of plantings remain there), so Silvaner rode its way into Italy; it's also planted here and there in Switzerland; and it has dabbled in Eastern Europe in countries like Slovakia, Croatia and Ukraine. Yes, the grape's even made its way out to California.

I recently tried four versions of Silvaner (spelled Sylvaner in France) from three different countries, each one seeming to wear a different wardrobe and assume a slightly different persona, despite all being made from those same "smallish green-yellow berries" that, Wine Grapes notes, "are more aromatic than the wine they produce."

First up were two versions from Alsace, cracked open at a dim sum party with a bunch of wine geeks and a cohort of formidable bottles. The 2010 Kuentz-Bas Trois Chateaux Sylvaner grabbed our attention immediately, sending up initial smoke signals that burst into fireworks of peach fuzz, lime and orange creamsicles. In between bites of pork dumplings, tart acid interrupted the creamy texture, and just the tiniest suggestion of sweetness pushed my pot-sticker-bearing chopsticks eagerly back into the bowl of vinegar-soy sauce. "High deliciousness factor here," someone wisely summed up. The bottle was the first to be emptied.

At the polar opposite end of the spectrum came the 2005 Albert Seltz Zotzenberg Grand Cru Sylvaner. Sylvaner's got gravitas in Zotzenberg: when grown in this vineyard in Alsace, it can be labeled Grand Cru thanks to its history of shining examples here. The color was fittingly, regally, shocking gold in color. It smelled rich and fabulous, like juicy yellow mango, peach juice dripping down your face and kumquat jelly smeared on hazelnut toast. It also, on second sniff, smelled like alcohol: brandy or fruit liqueur, warm and spicy. My palate had been primed by the Kuentz-Bas, and I anticipated a rush of acid to balance out the almost-sweet, fat texture... but none came, just soft cantaloupe and brandy flavors, a little cinnamon spice and a heavy, rich mouthfeel. This was clearly a wine that needed food, but it definitively did not play well with lettuce wraps. Sole meunier another time, perhaps?

On another recent occasion, I was initiated into the lore of the bocksbeutel: the traditional, flat and bulbous bottle shape for Silvaner made in the Franken region of Germany. The 2010 Juliusspital Kabinett Trocken Silvaner was a vibrant yellow color with a buttery yet intensely mineral scent—a combination that's counterintuitive but compelling. Lime, tangerine, melon and pineapple flashed in sequence across the palate, followed with a long, creamy and sour finish, like fruit-topped Greek yogurt. "Fierce," I wrote in my notes.

Finally, my interest in Silvaner piqued, I happened into one of my favorite restaurants in the entire universe, Bar Tartine. To my great surprise and delight, their wine list offered a Silvaner from Scribe winery in Sonoma. I've visited Scribe; they are amazing people with fantastic Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, but until that moment I had no idea they were keeping a Silvaner in their back pocket. I ordered a glass and swooned. The wine introduced itself with definition, minerals and muscle before melting into softer, succulent flavors of fresh tangerine and mandarin segments. It felt like a ménage-a-trois lovechild born with the lushness of the Seltz, the puckish acid of the Kuentz-Bas, and the muscularity of the Juliusspital.

My initial impression was that Sylvaner didn't really know who or what it was. I thought it was grasping at straws and had gotten the proverbial short end of the stick. In truth, it's not a grape endowed with obvious beauty or sex appeal, and... well, excuse my French, but it doesn't exactly put out (it lost favor and acreage in France to Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois in part because those vines produced more pounds of grapes.)

Silvaner is more like the smart, witty and slightly wry guy whose charm can take a moment to recognize. Silvaner has tried on (and is still trying) a number of guises—from fierce, firm and cut to overly ripe, round and a little sassy, to punkish-alternative and wearing a conspicuous outfit to make a statement. Life is long; the paths are many, and I'm looking forward to seeing where Silvaner pops up next.

2010 Kuentz-Bas Trois Chateaux Sylvaner The Grape(s): Sylvaner
 The Region: Alsace, France Retail Price: $22

2005 Albert Seltz Zotzenberg Grand Cru Sylvaner The Grape(s): Sylvaner
 The Region: Alsace, France Retail Price: $44

2010 Juliusspital Kabinett Trocken Silvaner The Grape(s): Silvaner The Region: Franken, Germany Retail Price: $22

2012 Scribe Sylvaner The Grape(s): Sylvaner
 The Region: Sonoma, California Retail Price: $38

Wines provided as samples for review consideration.