350 Years of Silvaner: At a historical tasting at Schloss Castell on 25 April 2009, some of the world’s leading wine experts extended the traditional white varietal birthday greetings, such as Jancis Robinson: “Silvaner is on its way to the top.” Italian wine writer Gian Luca Mazzella procured 26 legendary Silvaner wines from famous sites throughout Europe for this unique tasting which presented Silvaner and its unbelievable wealth of nuances over the course of nearly a century. “For me, this a dream come true,” said Erbgraf Ferdinand zu Castell-Castell, who hosted this special birthday celebration in conjunction with VDP (Prädikat Wine Estate) members of Franken.
Who’s Who: Silvaner, Producers, Tasting Participants
It was a tasting of wines from some of the world’s top Silvaner producers from start to finish, with wines from renowned estates, such as Abbazia di Novacella, Bürgerspital zum Hl. Geist, Fürstlich Castell’sches Domänenamt, as well as Domaine Weinbach, Weltner, Wittmann and Wirsching. A virtual who’s who among some of the world’s recognized wine authorities gathered for the tasting, journalists who write for leading wine publications in their respective countries, and are influential wine tasters and book authors: Jancis Robinson MW (England), Yumi Tanabe (Japan), Niel Beckett (England), Bernard Burtschy (France), Arne Ronold MW (Norway), Dr. David Schildknecht (USA), and of course, Professor Dr. Gian Luca Mazzella (Italy). Of course, renowned German journalists were also on the spot: Ulrich Sautter (Feinschmecker), Dr. Daniel Deckers (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung), Stephan Reinhard (Weinwisser), Christian Volbracht (dpa).
The Concept Behind the Tasting
Gian Luca Mazzella spent more than six months searching through the cellars of the most renowned Silvaner producers of Germany, as well as those of Alsace and Southern Tyrol, in order to present Silvaner in all its diversity. Not an easy undertaking, as he came to realize, since estates’ wine libraries focus far less on Silvaner than Riesling. Mazzella was the initiator of the “Century of German Riesling” tasting at Schloss Johannisberg/Rheingau in 2008. For Mazzella, it was equally important that the producers be present at the tasting in order to personally comment on the entire spectrum of Silvaner and discuss with tasting participants various themes, such as terroir, aging potentital, vinification methods, nuances of various clones (e.g. difference between blue and yellow Silvaner), reaction of Silvaner to vintage-related climatic conditions, and, of course, the range of quality categories from Cabinet (Kabinett) to Trockenbeerenauslese – an exchange among producers and opinion leaders that happens too rarely, but really is so important.
Silvaner – Vintage 1915...
It is always an awesome moment when a “great” wine is uncorked. Discussions not only center on the wine itself, but also on the memories associated with it – a particular landscape, family traditions, and, of course, the weather of a vintage. So, for example, 1915: mild winter, late spring, hot summer...and with these comments, the tasting began with a 1915 Schloss Hallburger Sylvaner, a wine that had a surprise in store with its freshness (after nearly a century!) and lively fruit acidity. Paul Graf von Schönborn: “It’s not a problem for us to open one of our last remaining (6) bottles of this rarity for the tasting – it’s a tremendous opportunity for Silvaner.”
Silvaner – Synonymous with Franken
Up until 50 years ago, Silvaner was the most widely planted varietal in Germany – in the 19th century, it accounted for one out of two vines. Then it fell from grace in many places, and was replaced by other grape varieties, such as Riesling. Today, there are just over 5,000 ha (ca. 13,000 acres) planted in Germany, or about five percent of the nation’s total vineyard area. In Franken, though, it maintained its leading position and became synonymous with the region – “just as Pinot Noir is synonymous with Burgund,“ says Karl Martin Schmitt, head of the VDP branch in Franken. For him, the varietals current renaissance is long overdue: “Silvaner wines are agreeable and versatile, and they truly reflect their terroir.”
Aging Potential and History...
Silvaner wines were able to demonstrate their agreeability and versatility the evening before the tasting at a gala dinner at Schloss Weissenstein in Pommersfelden. At the tasting on Saturday though, the tremendous longevity of Silvaner wines came as a surprise. Top sommelier Christina Fischer poured “816 years” of Silvaner from the great terroirs of Franken, Alsace, Rheinhessen, Pfalz, Baden and Southern Tyrol. According to Gian Luca Mazzella: “(It was) a great opportunity to sample Silvaner in all its variations and to understand the identity of the grape. In order to understand the identity of a wine, one must know its history.” Silvaner has a chequered past that led to very diverse styles – as demonstrated by the tasting at the historical site. Silvaner was first planted in Germany 350 years ago in the Casteller Schlossberg site, documented by a receipt for the purchase of 25 “Oesterreicher” vines (as it was then called) that lies in Schloss Castell’s archives.
The Last Bottle of 1959...
The oldest bottle was from Weingut Graf von Schönborn, a 1915 Sylvaner (as it was then spelled) and from the same “clos” or walled vineyard of Schloss Hallburg, a 1934. A 1949 Westhofener Kirchspiel Natur from Weingut Wittmann, a 1951 Casteller Schlossberg Silvaner, and a 1952 Alsatian Willm Sylvaner were also part of the flight with the oldest samples. For years and years the wines have shown what a wealth of nuances Silvaner embodies, and how it reflects its origin and vintage, whether vinified dry or in its lusciously sweet versions. The varietal presented itself as though it were a large fan that had been opened...showing unmistakable attributes, such as its elegance and power with a mild, yet lively, acidity; appealing with its complexity; impressive with its mineral tones; surprising with its soft, creamy fruit... “Stop comparing Silvaner with Riesling,” said Gian Luca Mazzella, “it can stand on its own.” After 350 years, better than ever. A unique historical tasting in the truest sense of the word. The Bürgerspital uncorked its last bottle of 1959 Silvaner Trockenbeerenauslese from the Würzburger Stein for the occasion. “Silvaner is something good,” said Karl Martin Schmitt. “Spread the good news!”