Sylvaner is the French nomenclature for the eastern European grape variety known as Silvaner in Germany. Sylvaner is a less luminous variety than the mighty Riesling and is often planted contiguously, yet Riesling lays claim to the more propitious south-facing hillside slopes. In contrast, Sylvaner is often planted on the flatter and warmer alluvial plains where, from Germany to Austria, Alsace and Luxembourg, yields are largely high and the wines unremarkable. In certain hands, however, particularly in Germany's Franken region, Sylvaner can be concentrated, refreshing and a welcome change from Riesling's searing acidity at the end of a solid day's tasting.
Sylvaner is an early-ripening and productive grape variety. It was the most widely planted variety throughout Alsace until the 1990's, when its susceptibility to frost and the tendency to render less-than-compelling wines, saw it overtaken by Riesling. Similarly, in Franken, it is the second most prominent variety after Riesling, yet that is where the comparison with Alsace ends.
With oddly shaped traditional bottles and less marketing allure than Alsace, Franken produces distinctive Sylvaners, lifted by herbal aromas and etched by limestone soils. The best wines are concentrated by moderate yields and an honest affection for the variety among the best producers that can seem charmingly provincial, yet is justified by luminous wines of poise and a dainty complexity.
Elsewhere Sylvaner produces yeoman wines for early consumption, from Italy's Alto-Adige to the Czech Republic. In Switzerland it makes for luscious drinking in contrast to the country's dire Chasselas, while in Australia's Yarra Valley, the enterprising producer 'Thick as Thieves' produces a finely tuned example by fermenting Sylvaner with the lees of Gewürtztraminer.