Sylvaner is variety that currently takes a lot of beating. In 30 years, the area under wine has declined from 27% to 11% of the vineyard are. The grape is been replaced by Riesling, particulary on the better slopes.
But Sylvaner also appears to be the current come-back kid of Alsace. From the 2005 vintage, Sylvaner is a grape for Alsace Grand Cru. Well, at least at Grand Cru Zotzenberg in Mittelbergheim, which will help the variety to regain a part of its lost elevated status.
Sylvaner is grown all over the Europe, but has not caught on in the New World. The most famous examples are the steely, super-dry wines from Franken bottled in the green, flat Bock-bottle. As the character is quite restrained, the genetic material of Sylvaner has been used for breeding, leading to crossings such as Ortega, Bacchus, Scheurebe and Morio-Muscat (which I admittedly liked in the early 8Os).
In Alsace, 1 300 ha of Sylvaner is planted.
Sylvaner gives medium-bodied wines with a lot of brute force and a good body. What it lacks, however, a some type of fingerprint aroma. No grower I have visited has referred to any particular varietal characteristic. From a marketing perspective, this is a tragic fate that Sylvaner shares with the likes of Melon (of Muscadet) and Chasselas.
Zotzenberg is the Grand Cru of Mittelbergheim, a few km south of Barr in Bas-Rhin. Mittelbergheim is beautiful and calm. The reputaion of Zotzenberg relies on its potential to produce Sylvaner of true class. The terroir is composed of limestone and marl, and the inclination is due south. Probably it is the combination of the terroir and the local dedication and tradition that is main cause reason why Zotzenberg excels with Sylvaner. The village hosts several growers that make lovely Sylvaner of true class!
Zotzenberg gained its Grand Cru status in Décret no 2005-269 du 21 mars 2005 modifiant le décret du 24 janvier 2001 relatif à l´appellation d´origine contrôlée "Alsace grand cru". Now, that was some interesting piece of information, right!?
As Zotzenberg got the right for Sylvaner Grand Cru (with the same legal limits as Riesling) it lost the rights for Muscat. A good example of the incomprehensible wheeling and dealing associated with the rulings of INAO.
A good region for seeking out exciting Sylvaner is around Rouffach in southern Alsace. From Grand Cru Vorbourg, René Muré produces a Clos St:Landelin Cuvée Oscar. Agathe Bursin (Westhalten) offers, unless sold out, a range of Sylvaner from Zinnkoepflé.
A personal favourite is Pierre Frick. His wines from Lieux-dits Bihl and Bergweingarten have body, character, spicyness, richness and a trace of bitterness. They are perfect matches for a plate of Italian anti-pasto, including salami, olives and roasted red bell peppers baked with anchovies and garlic.
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AOC Alsace Grand Cru