The Marisa Tomei of Forgotten Grapes
Silvaner. It’s German, and nothing that comes out of Germany could be bad, right? (which is why my chest tattoo says “DIE Silvaner DIE”...Simpsons fans,that one is on me!). Silvaner is a white wine grape that for a time was the most popular and the most populous grape in all of Germany. It reached its peak after World War II, when Silvaner vines covered 30% of all German vineyards. This lasted until the late 1970’s, when Silvaner was replaced by its blending partner Müller-Thurgau as Germany’s most populous.
But the problems with the Silvaner grape started right around this height of popularity. Like numerous actors and actresses who win a Best Supporting trophy, fill their schedule with all sorts of brand-new projects, but just can’t sustain the same level of quality their new-found popularity demands, so too could Silvaner not sustain its own quality in the wake of such increased demand. You see, much like the dichotomy between what fans see on the silver screen and how some movie stars behave in real life, Silvaner harbored a dirty little secret of its own: it is an extremely ambitious and vigorous grape, producing substantial amount of fruit from each vine. But unless that vigor is contained, reined in, and focused into just a few select bunches, Silvaner loses all of its elegance and produces flat, neutrally-tasting wines.
So like how Marisa Tomei would have misfires such as Untamed Heart and The Paper in the wake of her win for My Cousin Vinny, so too did Silvaner suffer in its post-popularity stages. It also didn’t help matters that because of the weakness of the wine when produced in bulk, Silvaner became a major component of the sweet German wine known as Liebsfraumilch, which while popular in Germany, came to be reviled the world over (here in the U.S., you might best remember Liebsfraumilch as Blue Nun).
Suffice to say that years of overproduction coupled with the increasingly negative reputation of Liebsfraumilch sent Silvaner’s stock plummeting. Though it never ran the risk of becoming extinct, it did lose its reputation both in Germany and abroad as a major wine grape, instead being subjugated to producing only jug and sweet wines that no connoisseurs would touch. And yet, just like the inexplicable reverence France has for Jerry Lewis, one particular region of Germany – the Franconia area of Bavaria, the only region of Bavaria that produces wine grapes and where Liebsfraumilch is not legally allowed – still revered the grape and continued to produce wines with it. Silvaner was also produced regularly throughout the Alsace region of France, and has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance since 2006, when the Silvaner grape was legally allowed to be included in the blend of Alsatian Grand Cru wines. In this way, Silvaner really could be considered the Marissa Tomei of Forgotten Grapes (remember, despite her shock Best Supporting Actress win in 1993, she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 2002 for In the Bedroom and again in 2009 for The Wrestler. Plus she spent virtually all of both The Wrestler and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead either topless or naked, AND she was George Costanza’s greatest mistake, so suffice to say we’re big fans of hers around these here parts).
When Silvaner is done right, which proper pruning and limited yields, it produces drier, crisper, more acidic wines with aromas and flavors of citrus peel, almond, green apple, and pineapple. Alsatian Silvaners tend to be even drier than their German cousins, and because of their high acidity and dryness, Silvaners are often blended with Rieslings, Elbling, Gewürztraminers and other German and Alsatian grapes that tend to lean toward the sweeter side. It’s a grape that can lend a lot of support, just like a Best Supporting Actor or Actress can do.
How Do You Pronounce Silvaner?
Silvaner Looks Like:
If you’re a fan of Forgotten Grapes, you know that most white varietals originating from or grown in Central Europe (namely Germany, Austria, the Czech republic, and all those former Eastern Bloc countries that start with the letter “S”) typically have either an extremely pale or a greenish tint to them. Not so Silvaner. While the wines might have just a hint of green to them, more often than not they are strikingly yellow, sometimes even golden.
Silvaner Smells Like:
Interestingly, despite their place of origin, Silvaner wines typically do not have the same signature medicinal/glycerin/sterile aroma that many of the signature white grapes of Central Europe (Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Müller-Thurgau) have. Instead, well-produced Silvaners (those with low yields from their vines) will give off very fresh scents of green apple and lemon curd. With some wines, you might get a nose of sugar cane while with others, more of a sea salt/sea breeze scent. These particular smells come down to location of the vineyard and where the wine was produced. Either way, though, you’ll be able to tell from the very first sniff that these wines are dry and tart and unlike other German varietals you might have tasted.
Silvaner Tastes Like:
Because of their high acidity and low alcohol levels, Silvaners can sometimes taste a little on the thin side. However, the well-produced Silvaners will be very dry wines, much drier than anything else produced in Germany; Alsatian Silvaners will be even drier, bone dry. Silvaners typically have a lot of flavor right up front during each sip (called the attack) but then thin out or give way as the wine makes its way down your tongue and throat. Despite this, Silvaners can have decent length to them; it’s in the middle that they kind of fall apart. Green apple flavors will abound along with a lot of dry citrus and perhaps some of that salty flavor you smelled earlier (though it will be more like club soda than straight salt. You might even detect a hint of bitterness to the wine also, as if you’ve encountered a citrus seed or part of a peel. Some Silvaners will also greet you in the middle or at the end with a hint of sweetness as well. Rather schizophrenic these wines, but what else would you expect – they’re German.
● Germany, especially the Franconia region of Bavaria and the Mosel
● The Alsacae in France
● Switzerland (as Johannisberger)
Cindy’s “Did Juneau?”:
The Silvaner grape was thought to have originated in Austria (brought over to Germany during the Thirty Years War), but as far as the people of Germany are concerned, Silvaner is German and is officially 350 years old. Why 350 years old? Well, there is a record of Silvaner vines being planted in a county of Franconia on April 5th, 1659, so the country officially recognized 2009 as the 350th anniversary of the Silvaner grape and commemorated it accordingly.
I think crab legs would just go perfectly with a Silvaner. Even though you don’t see crab as a staple on German or Alsatian menus, the succulence of the crab with just the right amount of sweetness is going to play off the sharp tartness of a Silvaner, even more so if there’s just a hint of sweetness to the wine. Add in some drawn butter for your crab, and you’re going to be in heaven with that pairing.
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