Silvaner Iphofer Kalb from Weinbau Hans Wirsching
Silvaner is an underappreciated white grape variety, capable of great things when grown in the right place. This example from Weinbau Hans Wirsching may be a half bottle, but it’s so good you’re getting a magnum-sized review! It’s a dry (trocken) white wine from the Franken wine region in Germany, where Silvaner rules thanks to a unique terroir.
Let’s start with the Silvaner grape variety. It’s an ancient white grape that is likely to have arrived in Franken (Franconia), in Germany, from Central Europe (perhaps Viennese Austria) in the seventeenth century, where it was initially known as Österreicher. First documented at the Castell Estate in Franken in 1659, Silvaner became Franken’s (and Germany’s) most planted variety. Indeed, while it’s found in several other European countries (Alsace in France now has a Grand Cru for it), it’s still predominantly grown in Germany.
Silvaner isn’t aromatic or fruity and is now best known for making high-volume, flavour-neutral dry wines. While such wines can be helpful in blends (including the now much-derided Liebfraumilch, which ironically could never come from Franken), the popularity and reputation of Silvaner have declined. In the present day, Silvaner is now only Germany’s fifth most planted grape variety, though it’s often been a parent in Germany’s modern grape crossings. Most Silvaner has always been made in a dry style, though occasional sweeter styles exist.
However, in contrast, Franken is where the most outstanding and characterful examples of Silvaner are made, particularly in Wurzburg and the hillside vineyards around Iphofen.
Franken is one of Germany’s most easterly wine regions. It’s mostly in northern Bavaria, where scattered vineyards loosely follow the River Main, with the capital being Wurzburg. Franken is perhaps less well known today in the UK than other German wine regions, primarily because most wine production is drunk locally rather than exported. Hence, finding Franken Silvaner in the UK is always exciting.
Franken’s climate has warm summers but often freezing winters. There are relatively few places in Franken where Riesling does well, as Riesling often struggles to ripen and is also susceptible to early autumn frosts as a late ripener. Instead, the reliability and productivity of earlier ripening Silvaner in these climes has historically been one of the keys to its lasting success. The other critical factor is the specific soil of the best Franken vineyards, called Keuper. It’s a sedimentary clay interspersed with veins of gypsum. We know gypsum (calcium sulphate) as plaster. Naturally occurring, this mineral aids soil health and drainage without altering soil pH, resulting in structured and more balanced wines with distinctive mineral notes.
Weinbau Hans Wirsching
Wirsching is a Silvaner specialist known as one of the best Silvaner producers, hand-making several cuvées from prestigious vineyard sites. This historic winery dates back to 1630, predating the documentation of Silvaner in Franken. It’s in the southeast of the region in the town of Iphofen. Indeed, Wirsching is one of Iphofen’s most prominent private estates, with 90 hectares, 40% of which is Silvaner. After fourteen generations, Andrea Wirsching took over the estate in 2014 and is now at the forefront of women winemakers in Germany.
Their wines are traditional and without any wood influence, which would blot out Silvaner’s subtlety. The style here is predominantly dry, though there are rarer Auslese and Beerenauslese sweet versions. Wirsching is a member of the prestigious VDP. Furthermore, Franken is the only German wine region in which Silvaner vineyards can reach the top of the VDP quality pyramid (VDP.Grosse Lage), like a Grand Cru, and Wirsching has those.
As for sustainability, Wirsching is also a member of Fair’n Green. This German sustainable agriculture system embraces business practices, environmental protection, and social responsibility. Members undergo independent annual audits; you can find more about it here. The Climate Emergency in Iphofen means increasing temperatures and declining rainfall. One response at Wirsching has been to alter their pruning regime to restrict vine vigour, yields, and alcohol, including a summer green harvest.
Iphofer Kalb is a prestigious single vineyard site classified as a VDP.Erste Lage. That’s the second highest level (akin to a Premier Cru) in the VDP quality pyramid. The Iphofer Kalb is a steep south-facing slope featuring dark clay soils full of gypsum, so it’s a classic Silvaner terroir.
Weinbau Hans Wirsching, Iphöfer Kalb, Silvaner Trocken, 2020. 13%
This wine shines brightly in the glass, a pale lemon colour. Initially, There is little aroma or fruit, but it offers subtle notes of quince, apple, and pear as it opens up.
It’s a full-bodied and rounded dry wine, the alcohol and acidity held in a balanced tension. Instead of fruit, there’s a firm, steely minerality and a crystalline texture. Flinty notes develop before a long, lean, elegant, savoury finish.
Left to open further, greenish herb and white pepper also show, adding complexity.
Those who like unoaked steely Chablis will find much to love here, as it’s a similar mineral style.
This wine is drinking perfectly now. The usual textbook recommendation is to drink Silvaner when young. However, these classic wines are worth keeping because of the terroir, as they will develop more complexity and depth over 5-7 years.
Silvaner is a white wine that’s best with food. I paired this bottle with a lightly poached salmon fillet with fennel pesto, which was an exceptional match. The classic match for Silvaner is white asparagus with Hollandaise Sauce, though I prefer green asparagus with some parmesan cheese melted on top. Whichever you choose, it’s a terrific pairing.
About that Green Bottle
The distinctive green bottle is no novelty. The shape is like a rounded, flat hip flask. Its name is Bocksbeutal, which came from Wurzburg. That name refers to either a ram’s scrotum or a book, though I know which is the most memorable description. This traditional shape is ideal for secreting discreetly in a pocket but doesn’t fit well in a conventional bottle rack, but don’t let that put you off. European law protects the authenticity and restricts the use of this bottle for the wines of Franken and a few other places.1.
Silvaner is the classic wine of Franken, and Iphofer Kalb makes a perfect introduction to the grape, the wine and the estate.
UK availability is from German wine specialists The Wine Barn, £13.45 (Half bottle). They stock a range of Wirsching’s Silvaner’s – so if you like this wine, I recommend you also explore some of those, especially the top-line VDP.Grosse Lage bottlings.
Weingut Hans Wirsching KG
- The Bocksbeutal protection law is in Appendix 1 of COMMISSION REGULATION (EC) No 753/2002.