Sylvaner wine, king of crap wine

January 27, 2011

Nobody dreams about Sylvaner. Mentioning it in a group of wine people is akin to professing an interest in the finer points of cardboard fabrication. The grape bums people out. Writers of encyclopedic works have little good to write about it, when they write anything at all. “Usually turns into bland wine,” Karen MacNeil grumps in a chapter on Alsace. “Makes for dull wines,” The Oxford Companion to Wine concurs, referring ominously to a “curse of the coarse, thick mid-palate.” Sylvaner is the kind of wine people drink while wishing they were having burgundy or Riesling; they drink it because it happens to be some combination of available, cold and cheap. The title of the Hank Cochran country standard, “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad),” sums up the way many people feel about it. Like Aligote, Chasselas, Kerner and their ilk, Sylvaner is a wine people tolerate. A crap wine, if you will. Would anyone read an entire column about it?

I first noticed Sylvaner on a visit to Marlow & Sons, a restaurant I like in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The wine list there is unapologetically geeky—Cabernet Franc from Chinon and Borgeuil, in the Loire Valley, occupies the entire first page. I happen to be cheap, especially when it comes to drinking in restaurants, so I sprang for one of the least expensive options, a Sylvaner from the dapper and dependably excellent Alsatian winemaker Charles Schleret. (At $34 it cost more than double what it does at a store, but I could deal.) Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t excited to be ordering Sylvaner, but I had to admit it smelled appetizing. It was cold and in the mouth shifted from white peaches and pears toward something like wax beans, with a tart, mineral bite on the finish. The more I thought about the Schleret the more it seemed the perfect foil for the pork belly I’d ordered. Flavorful, but not heavy. You could almost call it elegant. Brisk and refreshing—the right wine for the job and not a thing more. Not complex, really, but then I’d ridden a bike eight miles and and it was hot out and I wasn’t up to dealing with tannin or extract or Nazarene profundity. In the end, there’s no trick to ordering an old or rare bottle and oohing and ahhing about it while it steals everyone’s attention. Far more satisfying is finding one that works without fuss and provides maximum pleasure. That, I realized, is the magic of crap wines. Of which Sylvaner is quite possibly the king.

My all-time favorite Silvaner (as it’s spelled in Germany) used to be the scandalously cheap ($12) ‘07 from Schloss Mühlenhoff, in Rheinessen. It had been imported by one of the booze world’s most quote-worthy miscreants, the self-styled Wine Avenger, Willie Gluckstern. He named the import business he ran with his wife Miskeit—Yiddish for “ugly child”—and specialized in cheap, good German wine. He even designed the wine’s geisha label (talk about miskeit). Sadly, Willie and his wife split, and the business is defunct. But Willie is ticking. When I told him about my infatuation with Silvaner and the delicious Schloss, he contributed the following bon mot: “When grown with low yields on a good site, poor unloved Silvaner can send a frisson of Gänsehaut up the back of your neck with it’s crisp, minerally, flint-scented charms. Above all, Silvaner makes a sensational (just cerebral enough) white wine for foodies—especially when sourced as young as possible, dry (trocken) only, and at 12% alcohol or less.”

Now I was genuinely excited. Abetted by a couple of bottles contributed by importers, I hit New York’s wine shops in search of Sylvaner, underwhelming sales staff all over the city. The grape’s best-regarded versions grow in Germany, Alsace and Italy’s Alto Adige, so I made sure my unscientific menagerie had some from each. After tasting about a dozen, here’s a handful of high- and lowlights:

Albert Boxler ‘07 (Alsace, $21): From the quaint town of Niedermorschwihr. Decent enough, but just sort of sat there. Maybe Karen MacNeil is on to something after all.

Paul Blanck Vieilles Vignes ‘07 (Alsace, $21): Philippe Blanck is a terrific winemaker, but this tasted watery, flat, and inert. Perhaps an off-bottle, but I’m not going back.

Charles Schleret ‘06 (Alsace, $16): Spectacular (see above). Better yet, the cheapest of the bunch.

Pacherhof Sylvaner ‘08 (Alto Adige, $23): Like a Latter-Day Saint in a Paris disco: buttoned-up, a little uptight, but still tasty. Like most of these, needs a good chill.

Hans Wirsching Dry ‘07 (Franken, $18): Franconia is the one place where Silvaner does better than Riesling, its more talented and better-dressed sibling. Wine here is bottled in a Mateus-flask-shaped bottle called a bocksbeutel (yes, that means goat scrotum). The region’s best-known producer is Hans Wirsching, who makes a handful of Grosses Gewächs (grand cru) Silvaners that cost as much as a serious Bordeaux. The basic bottling is not surprisingly the most extracted among these, with 11.5% alcohol. Delicious, but the style struck me as somewhat heavy and over-rich, without the Schleret’s refreshment.

Hahnmühle “Gäseritsch” Spätlese Trocken ‘07 (Nahe, $22): Like all the Germans, this was richer than the Alsatian versions, but remained shapely; the most complex and mineral of the bunch, too. Well-played.

What have I learned? For one, Sylvaner tastes and smells like Sylvaner. Unlike, say, Müller-Thurgau or Kerner, it has a distinct, easily identifiable flavor. While it easily turns bland and insipid, when it’s vinified dry and made with care, Sylvaner can be as soul-satisfying and brisk as a white gets. And for what it’s worth, it goes really well with salad. With fancy Brunellos and Napa Chardonnays getting all the attention, it’s easy to forget that most of the world’s wines can justly be termed crap wines. Entire countries are planted with them (ever been to Moldova?). Many among these under-loved grapes are wan and best forgotten, but others are original and pure and cost delightfully little—Verdicchio from Matelica or Castelli di Jesi comes immediately to mind. As for Sylvaner, importer Savio Soares promises to bring the Schloss Mühlenhoff back to to the US, but not until 2010. Of the remaining candidates, while the Hahnmühle comes close, the Astaire-like Schleret remains the fleet favorite—the king of the king of the crap wines.


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