It seems almost incredible today that Germany's most popular vine variety in the early 20th century was Silvaner. (It took over that position from Elbling and passed on the crown to the thoroughly undeserving Müller-Thurgau.) Today it is only the fifth most planted variety, being a long way behind the two most planted white wine grapes Riesling and Müller Thurgau and having been overtaken recently by both Spätburgunder and even Dornfelder, so popular are red wines today in Germany.
It is easy to dismiss Silvaner as producing rather boring, neutral dry white wine, but that would show a very superficial acquaintance with this historic grape variety. Its introduction to the historic wine estate of Castell in Franken from Austria is well documented although it was probably grown quite widely elsewhere in what is now Germany in the Middle Ages.
Thanks to DNA profiling in Austria we now know that Silvaner's parents were Savagnin/Traminer and a now-obscure Austrian light-berried variety that looks very like Silvaner and is known as Österreichisch Weiss. Its origins therefore seem to be Central European. It is hardly grown in Austria today but is relatively common in the Czech Republic where it is known as Sylvánské Zelené and in Slovenia where it is called Zeleni Silvanec – all of these being local variations on its other name in German, Grüner Silvaner, or green Silvaner. In fact Czechs sometimes call it simply Zelen. It is also grown, sometimes called Zöldszilváni, around Lake Balaton in Hungary and is a speciality of the Valle Isarco (Eisacktaler) of Alto Adige, which is also associated with the origins of Traminer so perhaps this is not so surprising. Silvaner, the parent of many a 20th century German crossing, would seem to be the quintessential Central European white wine variety.
It is surprising therefore that it is not particularly resistant to spring frost and low winter temperatures, being much less hardy than the Riesling that has so definitively overtaken it. It buds and ripens a little earlier than Riesling and is notably more productive – doubtless a factor in its early 20th century popularity.
Silvaner seems most at home in Franken, where many consider it can produce the region's finest wine, and in Rheinhessen where some producers are so enthusiastic about its potential that they created RS, a special sales campaign for Rheinhessen Silvaner. Silvaner is one of Germany's few white wine grapes that seems obviously most at home producing dry rather than fruitier styles of wine, and so could be said to be particularly in tune with current tastes among wine drinkers in Germany.
Franken Silvaners may not be the most aromatic wines but, perhaps thanks to the clay-limestone soils there, have a special, sometimes mineral, raciness as well as very firm, full body. To perform well here the frost-prone Silvaner needs a good site and that from the Würzburger Stein vineyard has a long-established reputation. It is still revered at Castell and can make lovely wines on the Steigerwald slopes near Iphofen.
The region with the greatest area of Silvaner planted however is Rheinhessen where it has a long history and its supporters, keenly aware of its noble history, include such young turks as Wittmann whose Silvaner 'S' positively throbs with life and has an almost forest-like leafiness. This additional 'green' (perhaps that is why it is called Green Silvaner?) aroma in some ways echoes that of Sauvignon Blanc, another wine that is customarily recommended with asparagus. In Rheinhessen, consuming Silvaner with the new season's asparagus is almost a local religion. On the Kaiserstuhl in Baden, the local Silvaner can perform the same trick.
Few other regions of Germany grow Silvaner in any quantity although there are more than 1,000 ha (2,500 acres) in Pfalz and a little in the Nahe. Württemberg has its own dark-skinned grape speciality known as Blauer Silvaner.
In the Czech Republic Sylvánské Zelené, or Zelen, has a certain following with some producers such as Lobkowicz of Roudnice treating it with rather more respect than it has generally been given since the mid 20th century. The natural briskness of the varietal suits the continental climate of Czech wine regions well. It is also, I'm told, planted to a certain extent in such Russian vineyards as remain.
The variety is perhaps most commonly encountered outside Germany as Sylvaner, the name for it in the French wine region of Alsace. As in Germany, the variety was once much more widely planted here, particularly on the naturally productive flatter, lower vineyards of the Bas-Rhin. Today Sylvaner is planted on only just over a tenth of Alsace's vineyard and rarely occupies the better sites although there are a few, a very few, exceptionally good, characterful bottlings such as Rene Muré’s Clos St Landelin Cuvée Oscar. Sylvaner can at least boast relatively high acidity while the much more common Pinot Blanc and the related Auxerrois can be dangerously low in acidity. The Sylvaners of the Zotzenberg vineyard are so obviously superior that, exceptionally, the vineyard is allowed to describe the Sylvaner grown there as Alsace Grand Cru.
For much the same reason, Sylvaner can distinguish itself in Switzerland, where many whites lack acidity and body. Known as Johannisberg in the Valais, French-speaking Switzerland, it is the second most planted grape variety and can often seem more characterful than the even more common local Chasselas (Fendant). It is sometimes called Rhin, or Gros Rhin (as opposed to Petit Rhin, the local synonym for Riesling). Swiss Sylvaner ripens after Chasselas and can shine in well-sited, warmer vineyards around such villages as Chamoson, Leytron and Saillon on the south-facing slopes above Lac Leman.
Unusually, perhaps because the wines are relatively neutral, New World wine producers have shown virtually no interest in Silvaner.
Notable examples (both of the wines shown as a link below are past wines of the week) include Horst Sauer, Escherndorfer Lump Silvaner Spätlese trocken, Franken; Furst Lowenstein, Homburger Kallmuth Silvaner trocken, Franken; Juliusspital, Wurzburger Stein Silvaner trocken, Franken; Wittmann, Silvaner S trocken, Rheinhessen; Daniel Wagner of Siefersheim/Rheinhessen; Kuenhof Sylvaner Valle d'Isarco, Alto Adige; Rene Muré, Clos St Landelin, Cuvée Oscar, Alsace; Domaine Weinbach, Sylvaner Réserve, Alsace; and Josmeyer, Sylvaner, Alsace.