Silvaner has to be one of the most underrated varietals of all. When done well it is expressive, elegant and highly interesting: in Rheinhessen, Franken, Baden, Alsace and Pfalz, this is a frequent occurrence: Silvaner is more than capable of offering up world-class wines and yet most of the world hasn’t even heard of it.
On its own and without intense selection and crop reduction, Silvaner is often fairly neutral in taste. Like Müller-Thurgau and indeed the majority of the Pinot grapes, its character is tuned by the soil it grows on and how the winemakers chose to produce the wine. Whereas Silvaner is one of the most exciting varietals in Germany, it often produces bland, tasteless wines that fill supermarket shelves. In this form, it is seldom expensive and Silvaner is one of the workhorses of the German mass-producers: millions of litres of forgettable liquid, produced with the sole intention of getting someone drunk on the cheap.
But the true story of Silvaner is completely different.
Some of Germany’s most interesting and expressive wines are made of this varietal. Unlike Riesling, it isn’t particularly well-known overseas which leads to the vast majority being consumed within Germany and Alsace. Even the best wines made from this varietal rarely exceed 30€ a bottle which makes it a bit of an insider-tip for lovers of wines with small budgets: there are world-class Silvaners on the market for under a tenner, sometimes even for half of that price.
Franken is the spiritual home of Silvaner and its wines represent the pinnacle of the varietal’s production. Grown mostly on limestone soils on the banks of the Main, Franconian Silvaner is often very characterful, packs a decent amount of acidity and works astonishingly well with a wide varietal of dishes: particularly Asian cuisine. From top producers right down to regional co-ops, Franconian Silvaner is one of the world’s most important wine culture-products. Prized nationally for its Silvaner, without this varietal, it is hard to picture Franken as a major production region. Whilst many argue that its reds and Rieslings are the true gems of the region, my personal impression is that Silvaner is the specialty here.
Rheinhessen is also an important production region for Silvaner. With its limestone soils, many of the producers in and around Westhofen are prized for their fantastic, decent and smooth Silvaners: newcomers and established names alike consistently serve up some of this varietal’s top wines. Perhaps cleaner and lighter in style than those from Franconia, the wines are excruciatingly modern in style with elegance being perhaps the key word, wines here often display slightly less acidity and have a higher concentration of creamier, buttery notes.
In Alsace, Silvaner (most-often labelled as Sylvaner here) is a slightly more simple, everyday affair although the region produces a high number of good quality wines – whereas Alsace is also probably best known for its Riesling, Alsatian Sylvaner is highly underrated and, whilst it sometimes can feel a little dull (as is the case in Germany also), wines with a higher level of acidity can be particularly good: the old vines in the Zotzenberg Grand Cru site offer up some of the best examples of Sylvaner worldwide.
Even in the Riesling and Pinot-dominated Pfalz are there examples of fantastic Silvaner: again, mostly reliant on chalky soils, the wines here present themselves with a reliable acidity, a decent structure and, thanks to the way some of these wines are produced, they offer up stunning examples of modern, crisp, dry wines. In Baden, a region blessed with sunshine and ripe soils, many producers experiment and succeed with Silvaner. In the Kaiserstuhl and Markgräflerland, the varietal is widely planted and, whereas the majority of these wines are indeed forgettable, a few sites offer optimal growing conditions and excellent results.
I have compiled a list of wines to try: from entry-level, affordable wines right up to Grand Cru, Grosses Gewächse and experimental natural wines from a whole host of producers. If you have any suggestions, please use the comments section and I’d greatly appreciate being able to add more to the list based on your tips!
Alsace, Baden and Pfalz
Finding these wines where you live
Almost all of these wines are exclusively available in Germany. Many of the wineries do ship overseas or work with importers in several regions worldwide. If you're having trouble locating any of the above wines where you live, please get in touch and I'll gladly assist you in getting hold of more information.