Saturday, 2 October 2010
Sylvaner. Poor man's Riesling?
Think of Alsace and you can picture pots of pelargoniums hanging in baskets from every building, clinging onto window ledges and crowding doorways, entrance gates and courtyards. They love their flowers in Alsace, although seemingly just the one variety.
They love their food too. Tarts two I should say, as the most popular dishes are quiche lorraine and tarte flambée. The former an oven baked short crust pastry flan with lardons and onions in a savoury egg custard, the latter an oven baked bread dough based flan with lardons and onions in a savoury creme fraiche. Note the similarity.
Because it's pretty much the same with wines. Alsace is just about the only French winemaking region that concentrates almost exclusively on varietal wines i.e. wines made from a single grape variety, not blended with other grapes for style, enhanced with a handful of Colombard for acid or Semillon for weight, nor diluted with bulk varieties for economy.
The principal grapes in Alsace are Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris, with an honourable mention too for Sylvaner. What they all have in common, besides their willingness to grow in one of the the coolest wine-growing climates in France, is aroma.
For these are among the most aromatic of grapes, including some that create white wines of the very highest order.
Across the border in Germany such headily scented fruit would almost certainly be used for producing sweet wines or at the very least wines labelled halbtrocken, literally half-dry, which good restaurant menus and attentive sommeliers should accurately describe for diners as off-dry.
In Alsace the preferred style is dry(ish). And what style. And what value.
Despite the area under the Sylvaner vine falling from some 27% to 10% over the last 30 years, since 2006 the Sylvaner grape has controversially found itself promoted to Grand Cru status but only for wines made from 14 hectares of vines growing in the Zotzenberg vineyard. Such is the power and influence of terroir in the French wine classification systems.
Browsing the shelves of my local French Supermarket called Champion I found Jean-Marie Strubbler Sylvaner for under €3. Admittedly I was only looking at sub €3 wines and no Riesling or Gewürztraminer were available at such a low price, although I did also find a Pinot Gris.
But it was the Jean-Marie Strubbler Sylvaner that caught my eye, my wallet, and later my nose and my palate.
It's pale and clear in the glass, gently aromatic with slight white floral scents. It falls right into the medium dry category, milder in flavour than the rest of the Alsace varietals, with green apple sharpness, good balanced lime acid, light alcohol and a clean soft fruitful finish.
Like any Sylvaner it may be derided as a poor man's Riesling, but that's really what it is. Because it's just so much cheaper than modern Riesling. What Sylvaner lacks in the way of distinctive character compared to its highly aromatic and unique Alsation rivals is compensated by the value it offers. It is everyday easy drinking, not fine dining wine. A glugger not a gloater. A welcome change from Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc.
Have it with barbecues and picnics, especially quiches and savoury tarts, and reflect that at 12% ABV and only €3 a bottle, you can literally drink three times as much for the price of a decent Riesling.