Know This Grape

Silvaner’s German Plantings Are Dropping—but Its Reputation Is Rising

Unlike elsewhere in Germany, Silvaner reigns supreme in Franken, where winemakers are dialing in the right viticulture techniques for quality—and the industry is noticing

A close up on hands picking at Silvaner grapes
More wine professionals are coming around to the nuanced, terroir-driven Silvaners from Franken. Photo by Sophia May.

Though Silvaner was once the most widely planted grape in Germany, its greatest notoriety has historically been its ability to blend into the background (or into a bottle of Liebfraumilch). But despite the fact that Silvaner plantings continue to drop—from 7,546 hectares in 1995 to 4,419 hectares in 2022, according to recent statistics from the German Wine Institute—attention is building, both among the Franken winemakers who champion it as a varietal wine, and among the wine professionals who import and sell it.

“Silvaner was not the grape people were asking for five years ago,” says Evan Spingarn, the New York-based German portfolio manager for David Bowler Wines. Yet, the rising tide of interest in quality German wines has nurtured a curiosity for its lesser-known grapes, and energy is building around Silvaner. “I credit this to two things generally,” adds Spingarn, “the rise of young sommeliers who’ve suddenly found themselves in buying positions after COVID decimated the restaurant industry, and the combined agricultural and economic effects of global warming.” 

Even British wine critic and author Jancis Robinson, MW, who misses no chance to champion the Riesling cause, has lauded the merits of this undersung variety. “Silvaner has a distinctive style, it is unique to Germany,” she says. “I’m a big, big fan of Silvaner.” 

Ludwig Knoll, the owner and winemaker of Weingut Am Stein, has his own theory on why the change is coming now. Decades of demand for louder, more fruit-forward varieties, he suggests, have resulted in a market shift towards subtlety. In addition, Silvaner’s thick skin—literally, in this case—makes for a playground of phenolic interest and complexity. 

“Only now,” says Knoll, whose biodynamically farmed vines grow in the steep limestone slopes of the Silvaner bastion known as Würzburg, “is there a return to mouth-filling and textured wines, and this is of course a home game for Silvaner.”

Silvaner Finds a Foothold in Franken

Home here also refers to Franken. Although the crossing of Savagnin and Österreichisch-Weiss originated in Austria, it migrated in 1659 to the German town of Castell, approximately 30 kilometers east of Würzburg. The first Silvaner clones were selected around 1876, both establishing clone breeding and in a sense modern German viticulture. 

In 1922, Sylvaner Hochselektion Froelich became the first state-recognized grape clone when it was entered into the German Agricultural Society’s breeding register. The high yields of this clone soon led it to become the country’s most widely planted variety, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the country’s total vine plantings. 

By 1975, however, the trend had turned. Silvaner’s more restrained character fell out of favor as new, faster-ripening crossings like Müller-Thurgau, Bacchus, and Ortega began outpacing the humble workhorse. Across the country, Silvaner’s numbers fell, and have never really recovered—save in Franken. 

In the 1980s, the impact of the Austrian wine scandal, which also extended to Germany—in which some wineries added diethylene glycol to make their wines taste sweeter and fuller—turned more attention to Franken. “After some black sheep of the industry cheated with sugar and glycol [in 1984], people stopped trusting the Spätlesen and Auslesen wines,” recalls Andrea Wirsching of historic Franken estate Weingut Wirsching. With sweet wines suddenly suspect, Franken’s historical reputation for exceedingly—sometimes painfully—dry wines proved itself a major advantage. It tethered the variety to the identity of the region in ways that stay true today. 

“Silvaner can ripen easily, and with the high pH values of Franconian Trias soils, it didn’t need sugar to balance acidity,” says Wirsching. “That’s why Franken, once one of Germany’s coldest regions, had Silvaner on the premium vineyards and made it the signature grape for the area.” 

A headshot of Andrea Wirsching
Andrea Wirsching, the owner of Weingut Wirsching, notes that Franken has just the right conditions for premium Silvaner. Photo courtesy of Weingut Wirsching.

Honing Viticultural Techniques for Quality Silvaner

Keeping the vine’s high vigor in check is one of the keys to Silvaner’s success. Meticulous pruning and an organic approach promote an even and balanced growth. In the last decade, harvest times have shifted significantly earlier as Franken growers actively pursue freshness over fat.

“2015 was a very warm year,” says organic winegrower Rudolph May in Retzstadt, who counts Silvaner vines as nearly 70 percent of his total portfolio. “At that point we realized that we no longer needed the absolute final ripeness of Silvaner. From 2016 onwards, we have consistently handled this with an earlier picking date. The target is now 12.5 to 13.0% [ABV] and this, together with organic farming, is good for Silvaner. Since then we have also practiced cordon pruning, which has proven very successful in the old Silvaner vineyards.”

For Knoll, whose portfolio includes many mature Silvaner vines, the secret lies in this careful and focused treatment. “We are offering [Silvaner] the environment that great wines deserve,” he says. “Best sites, small harvests, poor soils, old vines on steep slopes, lots of manual work.” 

The approach seems to be working. While plantings have continued to fall over the last decade in the rest of Germany, Franken’s Silvaner numbers have steadily risen. In 2019, Silvaner overtook Müller-Thurgau as Franken’s most planted grape variety.  

Many of the old vineyards referenced by May have recently revealed another chapter in the variety’s story: not all Silvaner is green (grün). Grüner Silvaner, commonly shortened to simply Silvaner, has four color mutations: red, blue, yellow, and green. These mutations frequently occurred in old plots and are differentiated through varying berry size, cluster consistency and weight, color, and aromas. After noticing differences in the fruit in some of his oldest sites, Knoll sent his vines for genetic testing.

“These old clones, especially Yellow Silvaner, are very healthy and resistant,” he says. “Yellow Silvaner is much smaller in its clusters. The berries are also smaller, and not as sensitive. They have a tougher skin and a higher aromatic expression. At 85 years old, this is our oldest Silvaner and where we get our pruning material for new Silvaner vineyards.” 

Nearly all of the mutations can be found in mature stands like Knoll’s. Limited bottlings in recent years are being produced by growers looking to preserve and recultivate this unique heritage, such as Weingut Zehnthof Luckert, which carefully recultivated an ungrafted Silvaner plot dating back to the 1870s, making these the oldest Silvaner vines in Germany.

No matter the hue, Silvaner is naturally well suited to handling the frequent curveballs of climate chaos through its thick skin, deep roots, and strong vigor (crucial as a compensation for damage from late spring frosts). “Silvaner is not such a diva as Riesling,” says Knoll, “and because it can, for example, regulate transpiration better than many other varieties, it will hopefully continue to play the leading role here in Franconia in 50 or even 100 years’ time.” 

In some pockets of Franken, which is home to a wealth of old Silvaner vineyards, vintners are finding distinctive color mutations of the variety.
In some pockets of Franken, which is home to a wealth of old Silvaner vineyards, vintners are finding distinctive color mutations of the variety. Photo courtesy of Wines of Germany.

Silvaner Reimagined

Silvaner is not a purely Franconian, or even German, obsession, of course. Only 40 hectares can still be found in its native Austria, while considerably larger volumes thrive in Alsace, Switzerland, and Alto Adige. Curiosity plantings exist from California to the Czech Republic, but the expression currently ascending is indeed German to its core.

Yet no matter its origin, the grape is unlikely to sweep you off your feet with its aromatic intensity. Silvaner isin its purest formdriven by texture, form over fruit. Its transparency channels the nuance of site in beautiful and profound ways. 

“It is for Chablis drinkers who like structure and mineral and acid,” says Stephen Bitterolf, the founder of New York wine importer Vom Boden. “For me, it is a bit like Chardonnay without the belly fat.” Bitterolf currently imports around 30 different Silvaners from across Germany, a number that has continued to grow over the company’s 10-year existence. “We are much more invested in it now than we were [at the beginning], something which has come about from our own tasting and learning. Certainly we are not the first to import Silvaner, but I do believe we are the first to really give it a headliner position.”

Yet, Silvaner headlines in a less overt way. It’s a wine of nuance, not noise. That is where Silvaner shines best. Its superpower lies in its honest, herbal, and highly drinkable style; its transparency, especially when it comes to terroir. 

“My bet is on growth in the middle tier, where Silvaner’s dry, fresh, herby, not-too-acidic, highly drinkable style can go head to head with its stylistic siblings like Grüner, Vermentino, and Pinot Gris,” says Spingarn.


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Paula Redes Sidore is an American-born, Germany-based writer, editor and translator. She is the co-founder and co-editor of TRINK Magazine and the German regional specialist for Paula holds an IHK Sommelier certificate and an MFA in fiction writing from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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