At the beginning of Argentinian French novelist Julio Florencio Cortázar’s experimental novel 62 Modelo para Armar, the protagonist and intellectual, Juan, asks himself the question ‘And why did I ask for a bottle of Sylvaner?’ You might wonder why indeed, as it seems like an inauspicious match for Chateaubriand, even for a man who is having an existential crisis. Though we never really get to the bottom of why exactly Juan asks for the Sylvaner, we can perhaps agree that it might be the only example of that particular grape hogging the limelight of an opening chapter in literary history.
For an ancient grape variety long grown in central Europe, Sylvaner has historically suffered from an image problem. Previously considered too neutral, somewhat unforgettable and bland, it was always the grape that blends in rather than the one imparting something memorable, always the supporting actor and never the star. Sylvaner would never lure you in with the lime sharp and green-grass pizzazz of Sauvignon Blanc or the oily mystique of Viognier. Despite its poetic Latin name which conjures images of the deities, nymphs and goddesses of the woodland, it has never been what you might call an aspirational grape. It has always been, well, rather ordinary. But that might be slowly changing.
For a long time solely a constituent of recognisable, though not necessarily highly respected blends, such as Liebfraumilch, the grape seemed destined to always be improved upon by the addition of something else. Spelled with a ‘y’ in France, Austria and Italy’s Alto Adige, and with an ‘i’ in Germany, Sylvaner is a crossing between Austrian variety Österreichhisch Weiss and Traminer. Maison Boeckel in Mittelbergheim in northern Alsace, 5th generation growers and winemakers since Frédéric Boeckel founded the winery in 1853, have fully converted 24 hectares to organic viticulture in the last decade and the family holdings include a proportion of the prized Zotzenberg Grand Cru vineyards, considered one of the finest in Alsace and the only place Sylvaner can be bestowed Grand Cru status.
Nowadays, in Germany, the grape’s unique nature has begun to be expertly coaxed out by innovative wineries such as Bischel, Weingut Weltner, and Franken based Juliusspital. Horst Kolesch, director of Juliusspital states about the single varietal that ‘they strive for clear, billiant varietal typicity, depth of aroma, precision and tautness on the palate, an appetising mineral structure and a recognisable stamp of origin.’
As mentioned, Sylvaner has long had an association with the fertility and lush abundance of woods and valleys and it is thought that it originally arrived in Casteel (Franken), in Germany after the thirty years war, in approximately 1659. It went on to be planted extensively after the Second World War, reaching over 30% of vineyard areas by the 1970s. Due to overproduction, the grape fell out of popularity and a lot of vineyards were eventually grubbed up. It was in Franconia however, that Silvaner (don’t forget the German spelling) started to build a more respectable reputation as by then Liebfraumilch was not permitted and the trend moved towards dry white wines when most other German regions were still only producing semi-sweet wines.
The grape itself ripens about two weeks earlier than Riesling and yields a full-bodied wine with a mild acidity, which can fade with age. High quality modern manifestations of Silvaner in Franconia, Rhinehesse and the Pflaz among others, however, can be elegant, complex and long-lived and display characteristics of chamomile, menthol, quince, peach passion fruit, orange blossom, thyme and flint among others. For those who have not tried it before, the wine closest to its flavour profile that you might already be familiar with is Pinot Gris, although in some top quality Silvaners it can display a brisk leafiness akin to French Sauvignon Blanc.
Franken Silvaner is also notable for coming in a flat, squat flask like green bottle called a bocksbeutal from the term books büdell which dates back to the 17th Century where it was purportedly used as a prayer book bag or a water bottle for agricultural workers when toiling in the fields. Another more fanciful historical translation of the term is ‘ram’s scrotum’, presumably because of its resemblance to said appendage but this, I cannot confirm. There are also suggestions the name came from the expression Bocksbeutel anhängen (“to attach a Bocksbeutel [to someone]”), or “to make someone an object of ridicule”. Nowadays the shape is so synonymous with Franken that it is a protected bottle shape under EU law. All of these associated monikers can make the wine seem gimmicky and niche, however, or something indeed to be ridiculed, but some top wineries are actively working to improve its reputation and help Sylvaner express the particularities of its terroir, and with favourable results.
Bischel is one such premium vineyard lauded for its quality Silvaner. Brothers Christian and Matthias are the third generation of winegrowers at the Bischel family estate in Appenheim, a small village near Mainz in the northern Rheinhessen wine region. During the 60s and 70s grapes were grown to sell to bigger wineries but by the 1980s, Christian and Matthias’s father Hartmut was bottling the wines under the family label. The brothers took over from their father in 2006, changing a lot in the vineyards and cellar — reducing yields, working more organically, and most critically moving to purer and drier wines in line with the modern market both domestically and abroad.
Grapes for the Bischel Silvaner Trocken 2020 come from a 35-year-old Silvaner vineyard in Gau-Algesheim’s St. Laurenzikapelle where the soil is dominated by marl and limestone. The grapes are harvested by hand according to ripeness then gently crushed in the winery and left to stand in their own juice. Lastly they are fermented with wild yeasts in stainless steel, and bottled in the spring after four months on the lees. Displaying intense spice, pear and honeydew melon on the nose, the palate itself is dominated by lush pear, quince and ripe apple flavours. Highly structured, it imparts a mineral freshness imbued with a gentle creaminess, and surprisingly dry finish. I still wouldn’t recommend pairing it with Chateaubriand any time soon, but a grilled lemon sole with beurre blanc, shellfish linguine or a fried sage gnocchi would make incredible companions to the elegant character and fresh medium/high acidity of a well-made Silvaner.