Pinot Grigio has longed reigned as the unofficial white wine of American summer, on ice by the pool or gulped by the grill. But it’s time to consider alternatives to this neutral Italian white. Why? Because the world is filled with an array of interesting grapes that have never been more accessible to wine lovers.
Here’s why Sylvaner (or Silvaner) is perfect to fill Pinot Grigio’s boat shoes this summer.
If you’ve not sipped Sylvaner before, you’re not alone. The white grape originated in Central Europe as the offspring of Österreichisch Weiss and Traminer, two relatively obscure varieties. Cultivated in the Middle Ages, Sylvaner migrated from the Austrian Empire into Germany, where it took up permanent residence. The grape then hitchhiked over to Alsace, France, where it established a second spiritual home.
While familiar to Europeans, Sylvaner lacks identity in America. It’s seldom promoted as heavily as other white varieties of Germany and Alsace, like Riesling and Pinot Blanc. And the wines that once made it to our shores weren’t always prize winners, which caused Sylvaner to garner a reputation as neutral and innocuous.
Silvaner played a critical role in supporting Germany’s bulk wine, or Liebfraumilch era, a period the country’s vintners very likely wish many would forget. In the early 20th century, Silvaner (the German spelling) dominated as Germany’s most popular variety. Today, however, it accounts for only 5% of the country’s plantings.
Change is afoot though. In the hands of capable producers, Sylvaner takes on alluring traits, showcasing intriguing differences, depending on where it’s grown.
The major regions for Sylvaner
Today, Rheinhessen, to the west of Frankfurt and the largest of Germany’s 13 anbaugebiete, or appellations, claims the largest Silvaner acreage. Two of the region’s top producers, Wittmann and Schätzel, show Silvaner at its thrilling best, with brisk, fresh leafiness akin to Sauvignon Blanc, one of America’s favorite white wines.
From Baden, the Kaiserstuhl region delivers great examples of Silvaner, with green notes proudly on display. However, consumers should consider wines from Franken. The grape is a specialty of the region, producing what many argue to be the best examples. Wines are dry and full-bodied with a mineral undercurrent. Franken Silvaner is also notable for coming in an unusual bottle that provides a great ice-breaker at parties. Called a bocksbeutel, it’s flat, squat and wide like a flask.
In Alsace, Sylvaner (spelled with a ‘y’), takes on a different character. These wines often show richer, with honey and melon notes. The best examples require a little effort to track down, but once you do, buy a case and let it serve as your summer pour.
“It’s a good alternative to rosé,” says Thierry Fritsch, head oenologist and chief educator at the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d’Alsace. “Sylvaner is light and refreshing. Perfect to quench your thirst.”
Look for wines from Zotzenberg for the grape’s noblest expressions. “The best examples come from the Grand Cru Zotzenberg in Mittelbergheim,” says Fritsch. “It’s the only Grand Cru allowed to produce Sylvaner.”
André Ostertag, of Domaine Ostertag in Alsace, has been a fervent Sylvaner supporter since, well, birth.
“Sylvaner is a deep part of my life,” he says. “It’s a basic, because it’s the wine we use for cooking. Since I was in my mother’s womb, I’m drinking Sylvaner. That’s why Sylvaner literally flows in my veins.”
The wine presents, according to Ostertag, “the energy of early spring days, the chlorophyll vitality of young, green spring grass.” He says the variety is “fresh and juicy, and brings happiness to your mouth.”
Pairing Sylvaner wine with food
Alsatian cuisine is based largely on white wine, so Sylvaner is also a natural fit with food.
“Due to its freshness and gentle bitterness, it’s the perfect companion for salads, tapas, shellfish and grilled fishes,” says Fritsch. “[It’s] a real picnic wine.”
Sylvaner’s delicateness, however, means that pairing with bolder flavors, like Sockeye salmon, should be avoided. Yet, Sylvaner does have weight, so meatier seafood like swordfish and scallops will work well. The herbal, forest notes typical of German wine marries easily with vegetables.
Asparagus, a notoriously difficult ingredient to pair, is a natural partner for the wine. When in season, many local restaurants in Rheinhessen make a particular point of pairing Sylvaner with freshly-harvested white asparagus spears.
Ultimately, to understand Sylvaner, says Ostertag, one must accept its simplicity as the essence of its beauty. It’s a wine that whispers, rather than shouts.
“Sylvaner is pure and transparent like crystal mountain water,” he says. “It is essential like ‘le premier matin du monde’ or ‘the first morning of the world.’ ”
It may sound hyperbolic, poetic or both, but perhaps that’s the kind of advocacy this little white grape needs.