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Marie Zusslin and her brother, Jean-Paul, at Domaine Valentin Zusslin, in Alsace, France. She says silvaner is "an underdog that only needs good care to fully reveal itself".

Silvaner: lovely yet unloved spring wine seeks friends

May 18, 2018 5:50 AM

New York

WITH the overwhelming number of wines available today from all over the world, in a vast diversity of styles, many made from grapes virtually unknown a generation ago, consumers have had to resort to shortcuts and workarounds to slice through the confusion.

Some buy only wines made from familiar grapes that have been critically praised over time. Others are more adventurous, as long as the wines come from well-known producers or established importers. A few try to track what's new and exciting in wine bars, shops and restaurants.

Occasionally, wines that have much to offer are cast aside simply because they meet none of those artificial criteria. Their presence in the marketplace ebbs. They come to be seen as stuffy, old-fashioned or obsolete.

With this in mind, I would like to make the case for silvaner, a grape and a wine that has few champions and could use one badly.

Silvaner is a white grape of German origin, though I've seen many more bottles in the United States from Alsace, where it is spelled sylvaner, than from Germany.

It is also found throughout Central Europe under myriad spellings and names, and in Italy, primarily Alto Adige, the Tyrolean region in the north-east, where it is again simply called silvaner.

What does it have to offer? To my mind, silvaner is a perfect wine for spring: light, fragrant, gentle and almost shy, like the first buds emerging from a bare tree branch. It is classically dry, light and graceful, moderate in alcohol and touched with herbal and floral notes. This is a perfect lunchtime wine - easy to have a glass or two and still be productive the rest of the day.

Silvaner was far more popular back when it was not considered shocking to enjoy some wine in the middle of the day. A hundred years ago, it was the most commonly planted grape in Germany, but it is now fifth, well behind the highly deserving riesling, as well as Müller-Thurgau, a nondescript white, and two reds - spätburgunder, or pinot noir, and dornfelder, which has the potential to be interesting.

The grape may have no bigger advocate than André Ostertag, proprietor of Domaine Ostertag, whose 2015 Vieilles Vignes de Sylvaner, is bright and shimmering, floral and herbal, with depth and zest.

"It's not the caviar, it's the butcher and the baker," he said of silvaner last year, meaning the wine is foundational to the culture of Alsace.

"Alsatian food is based on white wine, and the wine used for sauces and macerations was sylvaner."

Mr Ostertag shares the belief that the biggest problem for the grape has been the abundance of bad wine. In Alsace, he said, it was seen as an everyday wine and, as a result, growers and producers did not take it seriously. In the vineyard, they valued quantity over quality. Winemaking was slapdash and prices were low.

"Overcropping, quick and fast winemaking and no marketing was the vision for sylvaner," he said.

The market was quick to judge. Even in France, he said, sales dropped. Growers who found themselves losing money on the grape replaced it with more profitable varieties.

In Alsace in 2017, silvaner accounted for just about 6 per cent of the grapes planted, said Marie Zusslin, who, with her brother, Jean-Paul, oversees Domaine Valentin Zusslin. That's down from almost 30 per cent in 1969.

The choices in stores for silvaner fans are sadly few, but I highly recommend five very different expressions.

Mr Ostertag's 2015 is a classic Alsace interpretation: sedate, floral and as clear as a cloudless day in the country. From alpine Alto Adige, Muri-Gries, housed in an ancient but still functioning Benedictine monastery, makes a richer style of silvaner, more textured yet clean and vibrant with aromas and flavors of apricots, herbs and flowers.

As different as those two wines may be, they are in an alternate universe from the 2013 Bergweingarten, made by the Alsace natural-wine producer Pierre Frick. Bottled under a crown cap and made with a minimal amount of sulfur dioxide, the almost universally used stabiliser, the Bergweingarten is the most unusual silvaner I've had, with an aroma that seemed to combine apricots with pineapples. On the palate, it was lively, pure, deep and refreshing. Call it singular or call it crazy, it was delicious either way.

From the Franken region of Germany, Stefan Vetter makes little but silvaner. Of his range, I've tried his basic bottle, fresh, pure, textured and fragrant; and his top bottle, the Rosenrain, from vines planted in 1934, which is deep and intense, with flavors more mineral than herbal that linger in the mouth.

The Rosenrain, retailing at about US$75 in the US, is the most expensive silvaner I've seen. The other bottles are all about US$20. NYTIMES