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The Stunning Transformation of German Silvaner

Once a workhorse variety, Silvaner from the Franken region is now a star

Ines Salpico By January 17, 2022
landscape shot of Klingenberg, Germany
The town of Klingenberg on the Main River, located in Lower Franconia. Photo by Matthias Stelzig.

Once found across Eastern Europe, often in the wild, Silvaner is now almost exclusively grown in Germany — although there are also significant plantings in Alsace and Alto Adige — where it is a fundamental if overlooked, part of the winemaking heritage. While not very disease resistant, Silvaner can be very productive, which is what made it popular among growers in the first half of the 20th century, surpassing Elbling as the most planted variety in Germany. Its productivity and easy appeal made it perfect workhorse material, delivering wines in quantity and of consistent quality, albeit not particularly expressive. 

The best producers, however, manage yields carefully and have long battled to highlight the variety’s true potential. If yields are kept in check, Silvaner can be a fabulous vehicle of terroir expressiveness, more on that below, its restrained aromas resting gently on an elegant frame of refreshing acidity and mineral detail.

Rheinhessen is the German wine region with the largest vineyard area planted to Silvaner. It is in Franken, however, that Silvaner is truly at home, producing medium-bodied, elegantly framed, and texturally expressive wines. Having arrived from Austria to Castell, on the Eastern edge of Franken, in the mid-1600s, Silvaner remains the region’s flagship grape and the heart of its winemaking tradition.

At home in Franken

Why has Silvaner thrived in this lesser-known German region? Nicolas Olinger, of Olinger Wein, is unequivocal: “Franken soils, no doubt, which are unique.” 

Franken’s geology is very specific, with three main soil profiles shaping the Franconian banks of the Main River: the westernmost vineyards, in the Spessart Hills north of Miltenberg, stand on steep slopes of weathered red-colored sandstone; the central district, around Marktheidenfeld, transitions from this primitive Triassic sandstone to the fossil-rich Muschelkalk, a shell-limestone also deposited in the Triassic period; to the east, Muschelkalk gives way to the distinctive Triassic marl known as Keuper, with the village of Iphofen as the epicenter of the distinct subregion. 

Silvaner benefits from this geological wealth given that, very much like Riesling, it has particular terroir transparency — an ability to convey minute variations of soil profile, yields, and growing conditions through aroma and texture. Possibly Silvaner is even more expressive than Riesling in this respect; it is less aromatically showy and therefore more clearly shaped by that elusive character one might call minerality. Winemaker Paul Weltner agrees, “Silvaner has this amazing purity and inner power.”

Olinger also points out that decisions in the cellar play an important role in bringing out the best of Silvaner. Spontaneous fermentation is, in his opinion, paramount to allow all the mineral structure and textural potential to shine. 

Stefan Bardorf, of the eponymous estate, agrees that spontaneous, long fermentations result in more complex and balanced wines. But he, along with Weltner, stresses that the main work must be done in the vineyard; while Silvaner can produce up to 960 gallons per acre, Bardorf harvests between 320 and 535 gallons.

Experimentation founded in classicism

Nico Olinger traveled and worked abroad before settling in Iphofen and taking over the family’s small winery. He trained and worked as a sommelier in Berlin, apprenticed in a winery in New Zealand, and studied wine business at the renowned Geisenheim Institute. “I had to go to New Zealand to see the beauty of what we have here. You want to be cool and go elsewhere. But cool is right here. We have old vineyards. We have beautiful villages. We have a tradition in good food, good drinking,” he says. “I love it here.”

His sense of excitement and rediscovery is part of a wider local context. Olinger is just one of many producers infusing new life into Franken’s winemaking scene. 

Their approach is experimentation while keeping tradition at the core. Yes, they’re having fun making orange Silvaners and pét-nats, but they are also refining the classical, transparent styles upon which the region’s identity is built and which, in their opinion, best convey the Franconian terroir. 

Thomas Fröhlich of Ilmbacher Hof, is the perfect embodiment of this synergy between future and past. His own winery offers a pared down range focused on pure expressions of the local varieties and vineyards. 

He is also one of the masterminds, in partnership with Max Martin and Markus Hillabrand, of Keuper Connection, a maverick project that does small batch experiments and uses an old working mine for its cellar. Their amphora-fermented Silvaner is intriguing, complex, and downright delicious wines. Free of any funky clumsiness, it shows true craft and the ability to experiment while remaining true to varietal expression and regional identity.  

For Paul Weltner, experimentation allowed him to consolidate his passion for a pure expression of Silvaner, unobstructed by winemaking processes. The fourth-generation at the helm of the family’s estate, he has become an upholder of the classical styles. “My effort has been to do less and less in the cellar to allow Silvaner’s inner power to show. Silvaner is not about aroma, it is about structure, texture, and the expression of terroir.”

Bocksbeutel nostalgia

Right, but what about the infamous Bocksbeutel? The heart-shaped bottle — don’t say Mateus rosé! — has long been a trademark of Franken wines, not always with a positive connotation. Loved by many, hated by some, it was once seen as a hurdle to reach new drinkers and engage sommeliers.

That was, of course, before millennial nostalgia took hold. The bocksbeutel has had a comeback and been embraced by the younger generation as a symbol of authenticity and craft. Old school is the new cool, even if importers and retailers complain about the inconvenience. Bardorf, Fröhlich, and Weltner are adamant about the fact that the bottle is a key part of the region’s identity. “Yes, they always complain.” says Bardorf. “But it’s part of our history.”

Still, winemakers are pragmatic and most do use flute or Burgundy bottles for most of their wines. Frölich sums up the necessary compromise: “I use Burgundy bottles for my top and entry-level wines, but my mid-range, the heart of my production will always be in a bocksbeutel.” And he makes a heart shape with his hands.

Going to Franken to drink Franken

“All my wine is drunk within a 150-kilometer radius,” says Fröhlich, “and that’s as it should be. I have a small production anyway and this way we keep our carbon footprint down and people get to know our region.” This proud sense of localism is a result of different, overlapping factors: very small production that is easily sold locally, a faithful following of customers who buy at the cellar door, and a natural affinity for receiving people, with winemaking inextricably linked to hospitality. You could call it provincialism — but pragmatic self-confidence might be more accurate.

Most, and some of the best Franken wines, can only be drunk by visiting the region, if not the producers themselves. Their sense of hospitality and pride goes well beyond wine: there is a natural and welcoming effort to show all aspects of the local culture, from food to history and architecture. Most wineries double as bed-and-breakfasts, have tasting rooms, and also host the quintessential Besenwirtschafts, or impromptu wine bars serving newly released wine alongside local nibbles.  

The best time to visit is in spring, when the most heralded food pairing tradition is available: Silvaner and white asparagus. 

3 Franken Silvaners to try:

bottle of Schieferkopf Franken Silvaner 2018

Schieferkopf Franken Silvaner 2018

A pleasant, easy-drinking Silvaner with fleshy aromas of quince and white peach topped by acacia honey. Broad palate with measured but vibrant acidity. Long finish with a pleasant grip and lingering flavors of lemon zest and white flowers. 

bottle of Winzer Sommerach Katzenkopf Silvaner Kabinett Trocken 2020

Winzer Sommerach Katzenkopf Silvaner Kabinett Trocken 2020

This is the flagship wine from a traditional and reliable cooperative. Hailing from a premium single-vineyard this is a wine of beautiful structure and robust minerality that is drinking beautifully but also has great aging potential.

bottle of Horst Sauer Escherndorfer Lump Silvaner 2017

Horst Sauer Escherndorfer Lump Silvaner 2017

A transparent Silvaner from the Escherndorfer Lump Erste-Lage, a Grand Cru-like single-vineyard, with clear aromas of lime zest, apple peel, and wet stone. The palate echoes the nose with zesty drive and delicious flinty texture.