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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 2018. 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 the long winter has finally left us and if we still haven't gone back to "normal" (whatever that is), it feels like there a little hope and life and sweetness in the air. And our favorite Sylvaners are 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). And with the new arrivals from Stefan Vetter and Domaine de l'Envol from Alsace, we can taste those just warm spring nights on the veranda (or roof fire escape).
In a just a few vintages Stefan Vetter's wines have become a beloved fixture on the shelves at the store. "Not More But Also Not Less." is the translation of the phrase printed near the base of every label of Vetter wine. And it perfectly sums up Stefan Vetter’s approach and commitment to his vineyards and wines. He works admirably in the vines using organic and biodynamic methods. In the cellar he adds nothing, allowing for spontaneous fermentation, and uses a mix of used barrels of various sizes with the occasional stainless steel tank if yields are high. The wines spend at least 12 months in barrel, are bottled unfined and unfiltered with a minimum of sulfur if at all. The wines are lively and layered, with pretty fruit enrobing a detailed mineral core.
Though by no means an historic estate, Domain de l'Envol formed in 2016 has already impressed with their certified biodynamic farming and wines that display brightness and energy rather than weight. Located in Ingersheim, close to the charming city of Colmar the domaine is made up of 21 hectares. Grapes are hand-harvested, fermentations are spontaneous, and in the case of the Sylvaner take place in stainless steel. The 2018 Dorfburg is beautifully expressive, showcasing all the delicate floral and white stonefuit nuances of the variety with its pretty perfume tempered with a savory herbaceousness to the palate. This has charm to spare and each sip beckons one back to the glass for another.
The vines are farmed biodynamically, the grapes strictly selected before fermentation with native yeasts and aging is in stainless steel. The 2018 Sylvaner Dorfburg offers aromas of white peach, cool crushed herbs, pear skin, brambles, and apple blossom. The palate is bright and lively, with flavors of perfectly ripe stone fruit, faint tropical notes, a bracing herbaceousness, with an nervy, mouthwatering finish. The 2018 embodies the cool, verdant charm of Sylvaner, while underlain with enough pebbly minerality and weightless concentration to move it past thirst-quenching to deeply satisfying. This was lovely with pan-roasted chicken atop a ragout of favas, baby artichokes, asparagus and morels, but would likely excel with just-cooked arctic char and spring peas or your favorite triple creme cheese. John McIlwain
How do I know Spring is coming? I start craving ramps, favas with pecorino. And those morels and asparagus should be here soon, right? Also, new bottlings of delicious Sylvaner are making their way here from Alsace and Germany. And the 2019 from Stefan Vetter is a about as vernal as anything you could want. Weighing in a 10% abv. and loaded with sweet green charm, this is a beauty. Fermented in a blend of stainless steel and barrel and bottled unfiltered with a minimum of sulfur. Crushed soft green herbs? Check. Lime zest, apple blossom aromatics? For sure. Just enough mineral zang and bright acid to cut thru the vinaigrette on your asparagus or the brown butter with your shad roe? Indeed, friends. And while the pleasures of more baroque Franken Silvaners are not lost on me, the unfurling sweet springtime joy of this bottle is singing especially sweetly now. Now when do the softshell crabs get here? John McIlwain
Stefan Vetter is nothing if not committed to Sylvaner as a grape variety, but even more a lens thru which we can view his special terroirs. As the name implies, the vines are on terraces with limestone soils. Whole bunch pressed, fermented and aged in old barrel, and bottled without filtration. The 2017 Steinterrassen Muschelkalk offers pretty aromas of lime blossom, comice pear, lime zest, and apple skin. The palate is layered and filigreed, with zesty notes of apple skin, green plum, dancing across a tangy/salty mineral core. There's sneaky depth and persistence here and the wine finishes with brio. This has knit beautifully since release and cries out for asparagus with hollandaise, potato-ramp velouté, or perhaps Hearth restaurant's justifiably famous fava beans with young pecorino, and spring onions. John McIlwain