The archetypal Franconian grape variety has been unfairly overlooked. Now Silvaner is making a real name for itself in Japan, the USA, China and Scandinavia. What’s more, this gentleman among grape varieties also personifies the Franconian mentality.
Anyone curious as to why Silvaner is seen as such an integral part of Franconia only has to visit virtually any winery in the region and taste a wide variety of different Silvaner wines. It soon becomes clear that the Franconians love this grape.
“It personifies the typical Franconian mentality,” says Rudolf May from the winery that bears his name in Retzstadt. “In itself it is calm, down-to-earth, authentic and never intrusive.” Today, Silvaner is found everywhere. On craggy cliffs, on gentle slopes, on red sand or dark weathered rocks.
Castell: birthplace of the Silvaner
A journey to the birthplace of this grape variety is not only of interest to wine historians. The first Silvaner vines in Germany were planted in Castell on 6 April 1659. Naturally, the wines from that era are long gone. However, in the Fürstlich Castell‘schen Domänenamt, or princely archives in Castell, where the relevant documents are stored, they run occasional tastings of dry Silvaners from the 1950s and 60s. These wines still offer an astonishing freshness and multi-faceted aromas.
Renaissance of Franconian wines
Yet, the love affair with this white grape was for a long time, with a few exceptions, very one-sided. Silvaner has always loved the vineyard terrain in Franconia. The winemakers, on the other hand, tended to treat it as a poor relation, with a focus on high yields and quick sales. This started to change around 30 years ago. At that time, the warehouses were full and the reputation of Franconian wines was at rock bottom. Silvaner wines in the typical Franconian Bocksbeutel bottles were often sold off very cheaply in supermarkets.
Then came the turning point. A few dedicated winemakers took the decision only to plant Silvaner in the best locations. And they treated the variety with respect. “The Silvaner needs lower yields, old vines and creative winemakers,” concludes Manfred Rothe from the Weingut Rothe in Nordheim.
Silvaner in stainless steel, in amphoras or as orange wine
And that brings its rewards. “Franconia is the only wine growing region in Germany in which the VDP winemakers even produce occasional Grand Cru wines from Silvaner,” says Andrea Wirsching from the Weingut Hans Wirsching in Iphofen. This new attitude soon attracted a wider following. The diverse range of Silvaner stylistics has gradually spread across the region. Stainless steel, concrete, spontaneous fermentation, large oak barrels, barriques, orange wines or amphora wines have led to different styles of wine.
Sometimes crisp, sometimes reflecting the terrain
In the view of Frank Dietrich, Managing Director and Chairman of the Winzerkeller Sommerach, there are very few other varieties that are able to present themselves in so many different facets, from young, crisp and fruity to heavy, complex and reflecting the terrain on which they are grown.
The latter plays an important role. “The Silvaner reflects the terrain of the Franconian Triassic formation featuring sandstone, shell limestone and Keuper,” explains Horst Kolesch, Head of the Weingut Juliusspital in Würzburg, the largest Silvaner vineyard in the world.
Keuper Silvaner, sandstone Silvaner or shell limestone Silvaner?
This variety, which tends to have less acidity, shows a clear regional character. This makes it particularly valuable for Franconia. It means the Keuper Silvaner is spicy and tangy with a herbal note. Shell limestone Silvaner reveals itself to be creamy, juicy and full of yellow fruit. Sandstone Silvaner is usually slender, often with citrus fruit aromas.
The versatility of the Silvaner is expanding all the time thanks to new and sometimes traditional winemaking skills, including the use of amphora. This makes it the perfect companion for meals. Depending on the style, it is equally well suited to barbecues in the summer as a hearty stew in the winter. It enhances the flavours of the dishes, captures their aromas and is never unpleasantly intrusive. The moderate acidity and mineral structure are well balanced, complementing each other to provide a drinkable wine that is also long-lasting on the palate.
The perfect companion – even for Scandinavian cuisine
Silvaner wines are therefore ideal for pairing with any vegetables, especially asparagus. They are a perfect match for all types of vegetable, as well as white meat and fish dishes.
“Many Scandinavians travel to Franconia because in the Silvaner they find the perfect wine to complement their Scandinavian fish dishes. Scandinavian cuisine and Silvaner are a match made in heaven,” reports Melanie Stumpf-Kröger from the Weingut Bickel-Stumpf in Frickenhausen. However, it can also match well with stronger aromas and spicy food.
"If it didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it“
“The Silvaner is an all-rounder with tension and elegance, from a dry estate wine to a noble sweet variant. It ranges from green and aromatic to a Burgundian style and is notorious for its ageing potential,” says an enthusiastic Robert Haller, Winery Director at the Bürgerspital Weingut in Würzburg. “If it didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it.”
Annemarie Sauer from the Weingut Rainer Sauer in Escherndorf is equally convinced by the strengths of the Silvaner, as they range from everyday quaffing wines to storable premium wines. The wines are easy to tolerate thanks to their low acidity but they still show a certain vivacity.
The discreet, calm gentleman of grape varieties
No wonder this variety inspires unusual thoughts. “I would describe the Silvaner as my best buddy. You can rely on it, you always know where you stand with it and it will never let you down. A kind of gentleman, calm, discreet, with lingering charm,” explains Christine Pröstler from the winery of the same name in Retzbach.
Since 2020, this extremely high-quality grape variety in Franconian has also been the number one in terms of area, covering 25 percent of the growing area, or around 1,500 hectares. No wonder the Silvaner has become the signature vine for the Franconian wine region and that Frankenwein-Frankenland GmbH promotes its wines with the new slogan “Franconian, home to the Silvaner since 1659”.
Make Silvaner great again!
“The message has got through. Demand is rising steadily, including at international level,” notes Horst Sauer from his winery in Escherndorf, which makes every style of wine from this grape variety, from estate wine to Trockenbeerenauslese.
The wines of the Silvaner specialists are now exported to a host of countries that includes the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Austria, the UK, Latvia, Vatican City, China, Taiwan, Japan, the USA and even Guatemala.
Silvaner forms the connection between Franconia as a tourism destination, a globally recognised and admired indigenous grape variety and a strong culture of gastronomic pleasure that is firmly rooted in the region.
“No worries about the future!”, exclaims Josef Engelhart, an expert at the Institute of Viticulture and Oenology IWO 2 of the Bavarian State Institute for Viticulture and Horticulture.
“Climate change is having a very good effect on the Silvaner in Franconia; the growing area has been extended to cooler locations while the warmer sites are currently producing the best Silvaner of all time.” The future looks bright for the first and only signature vine of Franconia, whose diversity is best explored in its native region.