Something Special In A Bottle Of Silvaner

Have you ever heard of a bocksbeutel? It is the traditional shape of a wine bottle from the area of Franconia in Germany. It is short and round-looking like the letter “O” with a neck on the top of it.

But it is not the bottle that makes it so special. Silvaner is the specialty of Franconia and the grape on which it hangs its hat.

Its true roots are Traminer and Osterreichisch-Weiss, which some believe to be originally from Austria. It has the reputation of being a “watery” and “flavorless” grape variety, which acts as a white canvas for the other influences in its production, such as its site, soil and environment, as well as any winemaking techniques that can include wood use, battonage, sur lie aging and oxidation.

But, interestingly, as a blank canvas it is transparent, and an opportunity for those winemakers who keep the yields lower to truly showcase the essence of their terroir. And when Silvaner is treated in the same light as other noble varieties, such as Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Gruner Veltliner, it can shine brightly.

The flavor of Silvaner can range from the most vapid of wines that seem like water blended with just a little alcohol to some extremely compelling and complex wines that age gracefully for decades. It is reminiscent of Pinot Gris in some ways. It has a lovely citrus edge to it with pear slices intermixed. It also resembles Riesling, with nectarine and grapefruit notes, but with less of the laserand diamond-cut knife edge that Riesling can exhibit. Silvaner in general also is not as intense or as “serious” as Riesling, in the best way.

Alsace, France, has some lovely and individual examples of this grape, including some delicious expressions from Domaines Ostertag and Boxler. But I was simply blown away by a tasting of Silvaner from the Franconian estate of Hans Wirsching. Based in the village of Iphof, the estate has been producing wines since 1630. We start with the its 2012 Silvaner Trocken (Dry) ($16), which shows some pretty citrus and floral notes with just a touch of pineapple rind. It’s dry on the palate with a medium-light body and a perfectly refreshing appeal.

The next example is the 2013 Hans Wirsching Iphofer Estate Silvaner ($27). This is a blend of its two Grand Cru holdings in Iphof (Kronsberg and Julius Echter Berg). It is richer, with more body and intensity, as if someone had turned up the volume. But it also is earthier, particularly on the chalky spectrum. It finishes dry, but it is definitely fatter on the palate and the fruit is riper.

Now we get to the single Grand Cru vineyard, 2012 Iphofer Kronsberg Silvaner ($34) and I can see why this is considered Grand Cru (Grosses Gewachs in German). It literally sings from the glass like a nightingale with a melody of sweet fruit, earth and place. The palate is plump, not full-bodied but really ample. I keep tasting it, as I taste different fruit each time I go back.

But there is still one more to go. The 2012 Iphofer Julius Echter Berg ($55) also is a Grand Cru, and I can see why it is served last. It is the most opulent Silvaner to have passed my lips. It transfers the essence of energy, red sandstone and fruit of the vineyard. There is the ripest of fruit, including yellow plums, and a seamlessness and harmony that is beguiling.

If you like dry whites without any new wood but with tremendous character and flavor, these Silvaners are for you. They are terrific with salads, shellfish and anything from the sea. But they also have the versatility to go with smoked sausages, sauerkraut and ham (even slathered in mustard).