Let me start with a quote from Jancis Robinson: You may well think I have gone barking mad with this week’s choice. Rheinhessen Silvaner? Has she finally lost it?
That is how she started her review of this wine, the Wittmann Silvaner “S” Trocken, though she was reviewing the 2004 vintage while I have a bottle of the 2005. She liked it enough to make it her wine of the week, despite it being somewhat out there. I’m tasting under different circumstances, in that she had a wine that was roughtly 12 months old, whereas I’m tasting the following vintage at six and a half year after vintage.
I’ve been meaning to write up a German wine for some time, and would have had a perfect opportunity when I looked to Rieslings a week and a bit ago. However, I had just pulled some old, local Riesling out of the cellar, and was given another bottle as a gift, and so I didn’t want to do yet another Riesling in such a short span of time. So this past weekend I went into a local merchant and asked for a German wine that wasn’t a Riesling, expecting to find a Spätburgunder. Instead, they managed to dig up this Silvaner, so I get to cover a new country and a new grape.
The study of German wines has been a challenge for me as a student, and it has little to do with the wines themselves. First there is the language, which I don’t speak, and so it adds a slight level of complexity to the situation as a whole. Of course, most wine is made outside the English speaking world, but the wines of France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and South America share a romance language base. So Pinot Noir and Pinot Nero seem to have more in common with each other than they do with Spätburgunder even if they’re all the same grape. There’s also the complexities of German wine laws as well as the same again with regard to labels.
The second main problem with studying German wines is that they just don’t turn up that often around here. There are areas of South Australia with major German influences, and even a few that are growing some lesser-known German grapes, but in terms of actual German wines, you’re likely to find some Dr. Loosen Riesling (which is excellent) but very little beyond that. Around here it’s relatively simple to do a tasting tour around France or Italy just using widely available imports, but much more difficult to do the same for Germany.
However, rather than bemoaning the problems with appreciating German wines, instead I should start appreciating the one I have right here. This wine is from Rheinhessen, which is roughly in the southwest of the country. The region is defined by the river Rhein as it’s northern and eastern boundary, with the classic notion of German vineyards being one of vines planted on steep slopes down to the water’s edge, in just the right aspect to make the most of the direct sun and the reflected light from the water. While the best vineyards are in the east by the river, in truth, there’s a large area under vine, some of it quite a ways from the river and some on rather flat terrain. While firmly continental in climate, the area is sheltered from wine and rain by hills to the west and the Rhine itself is a moderating influence on temperatures, providing frost protection.
There are a variety of soils in the area, with the most famous being a red slope of slate in the east between Oppenheim and Nackenheim, along the Rhine, which is well known for it’s white grape cultivation. Wonnegau, between Alzey and Works in the south, is best know for chalky soils and the production of fine dry Silvaners. It is also the region in which Wittmann is based. Much of the rest of the region has relatively bland, fertile farmland which is used for a mixture of crops, with grapes being but one.
Grapes grown is Rheinhessen are primarily white, with Müller-Thugau, Riesling and Silvaner being the most widely planted, though Dornfelder, Blauer Portugieser and Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) have considerable plantings as well. While the vast majority of wine produced is sold as bulk wine, with much of it bottled outside the region, there has been a movement toward fine wines, particularly Riesling and Silvaner, by some producers.
I can’t write about Rheinhessen without at least giving passing mention to Liebfraumilch, meaning ”beloved lady’s milk”. It’s a semi-sweet white wine that is produced in the area, as well as a few others, and sold mainly as an export. Black Tower and Blue Nun, both of Rheinhessen, are likely the most famous such wine brands, though Blue Nun no longer uses the classification. While such wines certainly have their place, and can be wildly popular, they represent a challenge to producers of fine wine in terms of differentiation.
Silvaner is a classic German white grape, though thought to have originated in Transylvania. It is early ripening, sensitive to frost, and fairly productive. It is known for high acidity, though not as high as Riesling. It is otherwise relatively mild, which can be seen as a blank slate through which terroir can be expressed. It’s Germany’s third most planted white grape, after Riesling and Müller-Thugau, though it’s popularity is somewhat in decline of late. It has not made many inroads internationally, though there are plantings in California and Australia.
Weingut Wittmann is a family run winery in Westhofen, in the southern area of Rheinhessen. Run by Philipp Wittmann and his parents, Gunther and Elisabeth, their vines are organically and biodynamically grown. They produce a wide range of trocken (dry) wines, largely varietal, from Riesling, Silvaner, Scheurebe, Weisser Burgunder (Chardonnay), Greuer Burgunder (Pinot Gris), and Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), as well as a number of sweet Rieslings, and a sparkler. Likewise their have wines that are easy drinking, everyday wines to much pricier single vineyard releases.
This wine, their Silvaner “S” Trocken, is in the higher end of their range, though they seem to have reorganized their categories slightly since 2005 as their “S” line now only has Chardonnay.
In the glass, this wine is pale lemon, with green highlights. The nose is clean, with a strong citrus character of bitter lemon. It’s still developing, despite the years. On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus intensity, medium plus acid, medium plus body, and medium alcohol. I get notes of lemon, pear, some lanolin, honeycomb, and sandalwood. It has a slightly waxy finish, with only a medium minus length.
I like this wine, and I’ll certainly put it in the good category. It’s not overly complex, but it is very pleasant in a linear way. I had been told that Silvaner can resemble Riesling in the glass, but I’m not finding that to be true in this case, certainly not with this older example. If I had been served this blind, I would have put it somewhere between Chenin Blanc and Pinot Gris. The pear notes and the way it’s become slightly honeyed are showing very well.