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It’s no secret that much of the oxygen in wine discourse is consumed by the classic, the important, and the fashionable. And while much ink is spilled discussing the classic wine regions and noble grapes (not to mention, rediscovered viticultural regions and methods), there hardly seems to be any room for more humble grapes and appellations.
This brings to mind Eric Asimov's wonderful paean to the Sylvaner grape from last year. He captured the character and context of the variety beautifully: "... silvaner is a perfect wine for spring: light, fragrant, gentle and almost shy, like the first buds emerging from a bare tree branch. It is classically dry, light and graceful, moderate in alcohol and touched with herbal and floral notes. This is a perfect lunchtime wine — easy to have a glass or two and still be productive the rest of the day." This expresses the the charm and lilting character of the grape perfectly. And who doesn't want a wine of such freshness and limpidity? And while I love the dazzling complexity of a Montrachet or baroque structure of a Wachau Riesling, often I long for a wine that is pretty and generous rather than important.
Mr. Asimov's article also raised an important question: with wines this joyous and table friendly, why aren't more Sylvaners available? Are they too obscure? Not flashy enough? Perhaps, they're just out of fashion. Whatever the case, we are pleased to offer a new favorite from 13th-generation domaine Valentin-Zusslin in Orschwir, Alsace, where biodynamic growers Marie Zusslin and her brother Jean-Paul make a range of sublime wines on the hill of Bollenberg, including a sunny and vibrant Sylvaner. The vines are grown in iron-rich clay soils, undergo severe selection in the vineyards. Fermentation is with native yeasts and elevage is in Vosges casks. The Sylvaner is bright and vibrant, with floral perfume tempered with a savory herbaceousness, at once fresh and punchy, yet layered enough to warrant a second sip (or glass, thank you very much). This is pretty and sprightly, so much so that we can hardly wait to enjoy this when spring is in the air.
And while we are on the subject of Sylvaner, we would be remiss not to include the textured and sapid old-vine Sylvaner 'Elis' from young upstarts Daniel and Jonas Brand in the Pfalz, whose wines possess an expressive earthiness and compelling depth. John McIlwain
From the south-facing Bollenberg lieu-dit in Orschwir, a hill that stands apart from the foothills of the Vosges. The soils are iron-rich clays. The vines are farmed biodynamically, the grapes undergo extreme selection before fermentation with native yeasts and aging in large Vosges casks. The 2014 Sylvaner Bollenberg offers enticing aromas of apricot, cool crushed herbs, golden apple skin, and apple blossoms. The palate is fresh and lively, with flavors of perfectly ripe stone fruit, faint tropical notes, a bracing herbaceousness, and an incisively savory finish. The 2014 embodies the charm of Sylvaner, while expressing enough stoniness to captivate the most ardent rock fan. A fine pairing with poached chicken with salsa verde and grand with a ripe triple crème cheese, this would enliven lighter fish preparations and make for a splendid apéritif. John McIlwain
'Elis' is short for Elisabeth, the previous owner of this parcel of 78-year-old Sylvaner, grown on gravely, sandy soils; 50% of which was hand-harvested early and allowed to ferment on the skins for one week. Fermentation and aging in used barrel, no fining, no filtration, no problem (also no sulfur added). A very, very tiny amount made, and we've ended up with just a case. If you love Sylvaner (and you should), this is mandatory drinking. White tea, pear, quince skin on the nose, elegant and concentrated notes of apricot, quince, and white strawberry on the powerful, lengthy finish. An incredibly sophisticated wine from such young winemakers, we eagerly look forward to future vintages! Cari Bernard