This variety is not as well known as it should be in some circles, and much too heavily depended upon in others. It ripens early and bears copiously--so copiously (and therefore diluted) that it can be accused of soiling its own name (at the hands of unscrupulous growers, of course) in the manner of Carignan.
Growers in Germany give this wine more consideration than many Alsace producers, which is a shame, but not entirely surprising, as the Grand Cru system in Alsace favors Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat. Sylvaner usually takes the unhallowed role locally of carafe wine, and in that guise it is pleasant enough. In the Rheinland, especially Rheinhessen and the Pfalz, it is something altogether different and more successful, but that seems to be the doing of the vineyard managers and cellar masters to the east of Alsace. There are some estates in Alsace that clearly treat the grape with some reverence, and these are the ones typically available outside of France.
Common Qualities of Sylvaner
Sylvaner has a relatively neutral aroma of lemon and occasionally granite after it has rained. Occasionally the scent reminds me of Muscadet, especially when it has some unabsorbed CO2 (which usually remains if bottled unfiltered). Sylvaner is usually attractively priced, has lots of zing, and is best drunk young, though I have known it age well when made in an austere style. I still have some Albert Boxler Sylvaner from 1998 that is still vibrant and minerally, despite losing its carbonic gas over the past decade. Its flavors are often indistinct but quite refreshing (if made with care), and it is easy to drink. When it is over-cropped, it is diluted and insipid, and some growers try to make up for this by picking before the grapes are ripe so that the acidity takes the place of flavor, but this rather unappealing flavor is not lost on most drinkers.
Grand Cru Sylvaner?
Yes, there is a Grand Cru Sylvaner--found only the the Bas-Rhin vineyard of Zotzenberg. Zotzenberg has historical fame for great Sylvaner, but until 2006, only Gewürztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Gris, and Riesling were entitled to Grand Cru status. Growers continued to grow Sylvaner in Zotzenberg anyway, and eventually wiser thinking prevailed within the bureaucracy and Sylvaner was added for this vineyard alone. I gather this means that we will also see Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles Sylvaner from Zotzenberg, and some may have been made, but I have not yet seen any, and would love to know if and when it happens.
Even before its station improved, Sylvaner grown in Zotzenberg carried a bit of residual sugar, but alcohol levels were also routinely over 10%, so these wines have a history of being power-oriented (for Sylvaner). This is uncharacteristic for Alsatian Sylvaner as a whole, but is a welcome representative of what the grape is capable of producing when grown on a great site.
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