In Search of Silvaner

There is a reason why most indigenous grape varieties will never became international successes. Some of those hyped varieties are niche products and will never reach a wider audience. But there are a few Cinderella varieties, waiting for their grand entrance—and one of them could be Silvaner. Silvaner is one of the most underrated grape varieties in the world; however, it is not a victim—there are reasons why it is in that situation. But winegrowers in Franken (Germany) and some nerds in Alsace and Alto Adige are committed to the variety, and may be able to restore Silvaner’s place on the global wine list. 

Where Silvaner Grows
Franken 1,380 ha 22.6% of regional vineyard area
Rheinhessen 2,405 ha 9.1% of regional vineyard area
Baden 139 ha 0.9% of regional vineyard area
Alsace 1,200 ha 7.5% of regional vineyard area
Alto Adige 67 ha 1.3% of regional vineyard area

Transylvania was perhaps the home of Dracula, but it is definitely not the place of origin for Silvaner. DNA-profiling has proven that Silvaner is an Austrian native, a natural cross of Traminer x Österreichisch Weiß, and it has been documented there since medieval times. In the 17th century it found its way to Franken, where Silvaner today plays a major role. While Franken has a winegrowing history dating to Roman times, its vineyards were heavily devastated after the Thirty Years War in the 17th century. To revive winegrowing, the Chieftain of Castell bought 25 so-called Österreicher (Austrian) cuttings, and planted them alongside other varieties in his vineyard in the year 1659. In the year 1665 the Cistercian Abbot Alberich Degen of Würzburg likewise planted Österreicher cuttings in the famous Würzburger Stein vineyard in Franken. Alberich Degen, apparently a humanist, gave the variety a brand new name, derived from “Sylvanus,” the Roman god of shepherds and forests, who is portrayed on ancient statues as farmer with a vintner’s knife in his hand.

In the 1960s Silvaner occupied about 30% of the total vineyard area in Germany, and it was the most widely planted grape variety in the country through 1968, with significant plantings in both the Pfalz and Rheinhessen. In the latter two it was replaced in the 1970s by new crossings like Huxelrebe and Bacchus, for the production of sweet and cheap Spätlese-styles. Only in Franken did the proportion of acreage remain consistent. Today only 5% of the total vineyard area in Germany is still dedicated to Silvaner. In Alsace the acreage dedicated to Silvaner declined from 2240 ha in 1964 to around 1200 ha in 2013. In Alto Adige, where Silvaner has its home in the Isarco Valley, the acreage has remained stable over the last decades. Small quantities of Silvaner can also be found in Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, Croatia and the Czech Republic, but none of them have a reputation for that variety.

Green, Yellow, Red or Blue? Silvaner in the Vineyard and the old/new Clonal Selections.

In Germany, France or Italy the common Silvaner is “Green Silvaner.” As Silvaner was so important economically in the 19th century, grapevine breeders took care to enhance yield levels. While there are four different Silvaner types—green, yellow, blue and red—the most popular was a reliably high-yielding clone of the sub-variety Green Silvaner, which has a slightly thicker skin, rendering it less vulnerable to rot. These reliable characteristics made Green Silvaner the preference for a lot of grape breeders in Germany, and it became a parent of Rieslaner (Silvaner X Riesling), Morio-Muskat (Silvaner X Weißer Burgunder), Bacchus ((Silvaner X Riesling) X Müller-Thurgau) and Regent ((Silvaner X Müller-Thurgau) X Chambourcin).

In times of climate change and increasing temperatures, these clones yield even more fruit if growers don’t hit the brakes. While Riesling can keep its varietal character even at higher yield levels, the more restrained aromatics of Silvaner, in combination with over-cropping, result in watery and characterless wines. Over-cropped Silvaner wines were a major part of the European wine lake in the 1970s and ‘80s, and a main ingredient of generic bottlings like Alsatian Edelzwicker or German Liebfraumilch. Its damaged reputation at the time led the Alsatians to omit the grape from Grand Cru consideration.

The demand for better clonal selection to consolidate and raise the image of Silvaner in Franken informed the research center at Veitzhöchheim in Bavaria. In old vineyards they isolated the sub-varieties Red, Yellow and Blue Silvaner, as well as a low-yielding clone of Green Silvaner. The Yellow Silvaner is especially suited for quality winemaking; it is low-yielding with very small berries and a riper aromatic profile of yellow fruits like quince, pear and honey. Green Silvaner is driven by vegetal aromatics like gooseberries and grass. Blue Silvaner has the same aromatic profile as Green Silvaner, with a complement of herbal notes and a higher level of bitter phenols. Red Silvaner, on the other hand, mutates easily and no one has yet made a varietal wine with it. In the last ten years the research center has collected more than 200 different clones. These old/new clones are of high interest for quality producers, who are slowly replacing the higher-yielding clones of the paste with a mix of new clones and sub-varieties.

Top: Green (Grüner) Silvaner has the largest bunches and berry size. Aromatics are driven by vegetative notes.
Bottom: Yellow (Gelber) Silvaner has looser, smaller berries, and is lower-yielding and less susceptible to bunch rot. Aromatic profile is driven by yellow fruits.

Silvaner ripens around two weeks earlier than Riesling and has different requirements for soil. While Riesling achieves good results in very poor soils, Silvaner needs richer soils with a good water and nutrient supply. Furthermore, Silvaner generally has about two fewer grams per liter of acidity than Riesling. For these reasons it is so often planted in less gifted vineyards—especially in Rheinhessen, where the best vineyards are dedicated to Riesling. In Franken, however, the macroclimate is a little bit cooler, and Riesling often tastes too harsh. Furthermore, the best vineyards in Franken have soils of chalky marl or gypsum, which Silvaner loves. Therefore it is not surprising that Silvaner found its real home in this region.  

Big Horse on Small Hooves

A challenge for growers working with Silvaner is to overcome the super-technical—and incredibly boring—winemaking paradigm of the last 20 years. Temperature controlled fermentation of highly clarified musts in stainless steel tanks with cultured yeasts brings reliable, over-cropped Silvaner aromatics. But, as we know, reliable is the sister of incredibly insipid! However, the techniques of post-modern winemaking have to be sensitively introduced. The restrained aromatics are susceptible to overzealous winemaking, giving wine drinkers the feeling that they have a very big horse on very small hooves in the glass.

Riesling with its high acidity and low pH is microbiologically very stable. One could almost put the juice of a Mosel Riesling in a big wooden cask and leave on holiday for one year without too many worries! Silvaner has much lower acidity and higher pH, and therefore has to be treated with more care. Furthermore, Riesling can cope with some residual sugar; therefore its not a problem when an indigenous ferment stops. Silvaner with more than 5-6 g/l of residual sugar tastes very dull indeed.

Growers are experimenting; besides lower crop levels it would seem that a little bit of skin maceration brings some phenolic interest to the wine. Starting fermentation with indigenous yeasts at higher temperatures creates a more complex bouquet, but adding cultured yeasts to ensure the wine ferments to dryness is very common. Lees aging to enhance the mid-palate weight is popular—but vintners must take care that malolactic fermentation doesn’t intrude and further reduce the acidity level. Overall a bit more oxidative handling (of course without any new oak treatment) reduces one-dimensional primary fruit. If treated correctly, Silvaner is a great prism for terroir with a lot of ageing potential.
Regional map of Franken. To the west is Mainviereck (the rectangular river shape); Maindreieck is in the center (where the river's course appears to form a triangle), and to the east is Steigerwald, in the area south of Bamberg and Schweinfurt.

As already mentioned, there is a great tradition in of Silvaner in Franken, where the grape is perfectly suited to the soil and climate. Franken is dominated by the course of the river Main, and there are three sub-regions within it. The first is called Mainviereck (“Main Rectangle”) because the course of the river forms a rectangle—here the soils are dominated by sandstone and you find good but not outstanding Silvaner. Here Paul Fürst makes outstanding Pinot Noir.

The other two sub-regions are home of some of the best terroir for Silvaner in the world: Maindreieck” (“Main Triangle”—the river’s course through here forms a triangle) with its limestone soils and Steigerwald (“wald” means forest), dominated by gypsum soils. All these different soil types were formed during the Triassic period.

Top Silvaner Vineyards in Franken

Homburger Kallmuth: This southwest-facing, steep slope is terraced and crossed by 12 kilometers of dry walls. Kallmuth is located in the village of Homburg, where the soil type changes from sandstone to limestone. The microclimate is so hot, it can reach up to 50°C in summer and remains relatively dry. Wild orchids grow next to the vines. The best winery here is Fürst Löwenstein. They enforce the already luscious character of their Silvaner wines by harvesting quite late and playing with a little bit of botrytis. The best wines are highly concentrated, driven by yellow fruit, honey, flint and Mediterranean herbal notes. They have a creamy texture and a soft acid structure combined with high level of extract and full body. 

Würzburger Stein: Vines have been growing here for more than 1300 years. The Stein was always regarded as one of the best single vineyards in Germany; its fame is legendary. However, not all of the 83 ha named Stein are as good as the legends suggest. The slope is south-southwest facing and its proximity to the big city results in very small diurnal temperature shifts. On these chalky limestone soils, Silvaner is driven by clearly defined varietal character with aromas of yellow fruits (quince and apricots), hay and almonds. The wines have the perfect balance between ripeness and acidity, and showcase a typically smoky finish. In the past people thought this came from steam locomotives crossing the vineyards on the way to Würzburg main station! Many winegrowers hold a stake in the Würzburger Stein. Very clean and clear wines are made from the Juliusspital, while Ludwig Knoll from the Weingut am Stein has a more fearless approach in winemaking. He experiments with big wooden vats as well as concrete eggs and presents edgier wines.  

Escherndorfer Lump: This very steep, south- to southwest-facing slope has deep limestone soil mixed with marl. The soil is fatter than in Würzburg and the steepness (up to 75%) is responsible for good thermal circulation. Here you have a higher diurnal temperature shift than in Würzburg. The winery Horst Sauer is famous for its crystal-clear Silvaners. The wines show aromas of pear, quince and dried apricots as well as exotic fruits in ripe years. They are full-bodied, with a long finish and juicy acidity. Compared to the Silvaner from Würzburg, the Escherndorfer Lump shows more expressive fruit. Furthermore, Horst Sauer is known for his great sweet wines, also made from Silvaner. The best wines, concentrated by noble rot, don’t have to fear the comparison with noble sweet Riesling.

Iphöfer Julius-Echter-Berg: This vineyard is located in the sub-region Steigerwald, where the soil type is dominated by greenish/grey gypsum, which has a soft texture. This soil type developed as tectonic movements changed the ancestral sea into flat lagoons. The evaporation of seawater, 230 million years ago, led to the precipitation of gypsum and anhydrite. These bright layers are sandwiched between clay and marl. Not far away from the great vineyard is a quarry that prepares gypsum for industrial use. The Julius-Echter-Berg is a very well-protected, south-facing vineyard, but it lies at a higher altitude. Here the Silvaner is totally different to those from limestone soils. It has a much more austere and profound character. The aromatics are spicy, more vegetal and earthy. The wines are balanced at a high alcohol level, the acidity is a bit more present, and in the finish you find a delicate bitter tone combined with spice and flintstone notes. Weingut Hans Wirsching and Weingut Hans Ruck make textbook examples. 

Clockwise from top left: Kallmuth, Stein, gypsum soil at Julius Echter-Berg, Lump


Silvaner in Other Areas

Germany: Rheinhessen is the largest wine region in Germany, and it has more Silvaner than any other region as well. While the grape in the past was heavily over-cropped, the best growers today are producing solid, easy-to-drink, dry and quaffable styles at reasonable prices. In Baden Silvaner is cultivated on a very low scale; however, here the grape is actually planted in very good vineyards. The best examples come from the volcanic soils of Ihringer Winklerberg in the south of Germany. Powerful, earthy and spicy… the only soft thing in these wines is their acidity. Weingut Dr. Heger makes a very good example. 

Alsace: In France, Alsace is the only region where one can find Sylvaner. 40 years ago, Sylvaner was one of the main grape varieties in Alsace, and was especially popular in the Bas-Rhin. Until the 1970s, Sylvaner was over-cropped and simple, thin wines found their way to the consumer as components of cheap Edelzwicker blends. Today, Sylvaner plays a minor role in the region since it is not authorized for use in crémant and it is not a “noble” variety in the Grand Cru system. However, the village of Mittelbergheim is an ambitious enclave in otherwise hostile-to-Sylvaner surroundings. Here, the Zotzenberg vineyard, with its perfect soils of limestone mixed with marl, merited Grand Cru status for Sylvaner in the year 2005: growers fought hard for their long Sylvaner tradition and finally won the battle. Jean-Daniel Boeckel is the owner of some very old vines in the Grand Cru Zotzenberg, and his complex wines show rounded acidity with restrained aromatics of herbs, quince, earth and hazelnut. As in all wines from Alsace, Zotzenberg Sylvaner lives through its structure rather than primary fruit aromatics.

Alto Adige: In Alto Adige Sylvaner is planted almost exclusively at high elevation (500-700 m) in the Valle Isarco, on terraced slopes with gravelly soils. The wines get sufficient sunshine but the high altitude ensures a cool climate and therefore ripe wines with fresh acidity. The Sylvaner is salty and zippy with a crystal-clear varietal expression. The biodynamic winery Pacherhof makes a good example from old vines, as do Köfererhof and Kuenhof.

Left: Alto Adige; Right: Zotzenberg in Alsace

Does Silvaner have what it takes to become more appreciated among wine lovers? Well, it has a common characteristic shared by the best Germanic white varieties: a lot of structure without any weight. This differentiates the variety from a plethora of more featureless indigenous varieties. Its restrained aromatics of vegetal and yellow fruit notes combined with lower acidity and the always-dry style makes it a good complement to Riesling. Silvaner in the right hands, on the right soil, is a great transmitter of terroir with aging potential, ensuring authenticity. All these possible characteristics make this variety a great match for modern styles of lighter, herbal and complex cuisines. And this is Silvaner’s biggest trump card.  

  • I'd like to share a tiny terroir at the source of the Rhône in Valais (Wallis), Switzerland called Chamoson.  Particularly the Johannisberg (aka Sylvaner/Silvaner) from Simon Maye et Fils.  Raphaël has the small-berried clone in his vineyards.  In my opinion, particularly in warmer vintages like 2018, this Silvaner gives Wirsching's a run for his money.  And at a fraction of the price.  Obviously it is different, more structure and more phenolics on the palate, but has a classic Julius Echter-Berg nose...  Tiny production.  But if you want some, get in touch.

  • Thank you for this piece.  I spent almost three years drinking Sylvaner whilst stationed in Schweinfurt with the U.S. Army.  Franken as a whole doesn't get the love it deserves.

  • I keep running into Wirsching Sylvaner in a half bottle (baby-bocks).  Man, I love that stuff!

  • Wish I had read this before the Certified exam...there was a question about the German region known for Sylvaner. Great piece, though, makes me want to drink more Sylvaners.

  • Thank you Romana,

    I wish I could find more of this grape to drink.

    I have had REALLY delicious experiences with it, and I love its green phenolic nerve and spice!