SYLVANER THE CINDERELLA GRAPE

By Rose Murray Brown MW   Published in The Scotsman 2 June 2024

“Sylvaner is a Cinderella of a grape”, explained Alsace wine expert Anne Krebiehl MW.  “In the past Sylvaner was a very important variety in Alsace, which now needs to be treated with more respect”.

Today Sylvaner is not considered a ‘noble’ grape, but after our tasting held in Alsace of 20 fascinating examples from across this small region in eastern France, it clearly should be.  In Alsace, Sylvaner is not one of the Big Four grapes (Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat) – but there are signs that ‘the phoenix is rising’ according to Sylvaner specialist Albert Seltz.

Sylvaner has a long history in Alsace, first documented in 1852, but believed to have been grown there well before that date.  According to Krebiehl, it has unfortunately gained a reputation as a workhorse grape here, not helped by the erudite Hugh Johnson describing it as the ‘local tap wine’ in Alsace.

By 1969 there were over 2,500 hectares of mainly ‘green’ Sylvaner (there are three types yellow, green and pink skinned roter) in Alsace – making up an incredible 27% of plantings – clearly popular with growers as it gave a good crop.  Since then there has been a dramatic 74% reduction in hectares – with only 672 hectares remaining – and it is excluded from Cremant d’Alsace cuvees or from carrying Vendanges Tardive (late harvest) on the label.

Sylvaner can certainly produce easy-drinking fresh discreetly floral dry styles, but from our in-depth tasting it became very clear that that there is a different side to Sylvaner in Alsace.  Its citrus aromas, white blossom and the grape’s incredible texture come to the fore in the best vineyard sites, some wines with large old oak ageing and time on lees for up to twelve months to build in texture – and it can also make a versatile food match.

Growers are also starting to realise Sylvaner’s potential as a ‘future-proof’ grape as our climate changes.  It is a hardy grape, not susceptible to disease so requires little spraying, and it does not clock up high alcohol even in warm temperatures – although it does have less acidity than Riesling, it has fine texture and an ability to age.

Outside Alsace, Sylvaner is not particularly revered anywhere apart from Franconia in Germany where it was documented in 1659 and produces fine examples.  Its origin is possibly in Austria before it spread all around Central Europe as a popular post-phylloxera hardy high yielding grape.

As our tasting showed, there are clearly small pockets in Alsace which show serious potential for the grape.  Some of the best Alsace Sylvaners we tasted came from a small village called Mittelbergheim near Barr in the northern Bas-Rhine department in Alsace.

Here half of the south and east-facing Zotzenberg vineyard (pictured above), which dates back to C14, is now planted with Sylvaner – with 16 hectares on Jurassic limestone soils.  Since its Grand Cru status was approved for Sylvaner, it has become the epicentre of Alsace Sylvaner in the region with top producers like Domaine Boeckel, Domaine Alfred Wantz and Domaine Albert Seltz.

Our expo on Sylvaner also revealed what different styles you can find from the complex range of soils in Alsace – from granitic sands, Tertiary limestone to pure Triassic sandstone.  Clearly a hidden ‘noble’ gem in Alsace which deserves to be better known.

ALSACE SYLVANER TO TRY:

SYLVANER RESERVE 2022 Joseph Cattin

£11.75 The Wine Society

Fresh juicy floral introduction to the grape.  Jacques Cattin makes Sylvaner in an easy drinking approachable style perfect as a summer white.

SYLVANER 2021 Domaine Weinbach ***STAR BUY***

£26 Justerini & Brooks

Profoundly rich intense Sylvaner (pictured above) with minerally undertones made from 70 year old vines grown on granitic sands, made by talented Eddy Faller at their historic Clos des Capucins monopoly.  Very good.

SYLVANER VIEILLES VIGNES 2023 Domaine Mittnacht Freres

N/A in UK

Biodynamically grown 45 year old vines grown on alluvium soil in Hunawihr in central Alsace – this has a good primary fruit, great vibrancy, balance and youthful freshness; wild yeast fermented and matured on lees 6 months in stainless steel.

SYLVANER LIEU-DIT ‘BOLLENBERG’ 2019 Domaine Zusslin

£24 Vinatis

Beautifully textured example of Sylvaner with intense fruits, long creamy palate, balanced acidity and lingering length from an exciting biodynamic producer based in Orschwihr village (clay-limestone soil) in southern Alsace.

SYLVANER GRAND CRU ‘ZOTZENBURG 2020 Domaine Boeckel ***STAR BUY***

£33 The Cork & Bottle

Incredible old vine richness here from the famous limestone-based Grand Cru in Mittelbergheim in northern Alsace; loved its mineral notes and creamy texture from long lees ageing – made by talented winemaker Thomas Boeckel who has a delicate touch.

 

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