Sylvaner (or Silvaner), known in Switzerland as Johannisberg, is an ancient variety from Eastern Europe, introduced into Valais at the start of the Twentieth Century.
When produced with high yields, Sylvaner can produce a bland and uninteresting wine, hence its lack of popularity for growers outside Europe. When yields are controlled, however, Sylvaner creates a crisp, minerally, flint-scented wine.
Above all, Sylvaner makes a sensational white wine for food. When young, they are also a much enjoyed Aperitif wine. Forget beer, have a Johannis!
Despite originating in Austria, the bulk of the world’s planting of Sylvaner is in Germany. France has over a thousand hectares in Alsace and there are much smaller plantings throughout Europe. Outside Europe, very little Sylvaner exists with tiny amounts in New Zealand, Canada and the USA.
Sylvaner is a natural cross between Savagnin (Traminer) and Österreichisch Weiß, a rare grape from Vienna, and had existed for more than 500 years.
Talking of years, Johannisberg can age magnificently! I have drank one from the 40s and it was fresh, rich, complex.
But should you read old texts about wine, please be aware that before our more rigorous era, Johannisberg was often a name for Riesling, and Riesling a name for Sylvaner...
With around 2 hectares in production, Josef-Marie Chanton remains the saviour of yet another otherwise extinct variety.
Recent DNA profiling has identified Blanc de Maurienne as being Rèze and this grape is named after the valley in Savoie where a few vines still exist. This is one possible origin of the grape. Another is that it comes from northern Italy and the name is a derivative of the Latin "Raetica" which was the most widespread white grape in that area during the Roman era.
This rare grape has lineage connections with a number of grapes from different regions: Diolle and Grosse Arvine from Switzerland and Cascarolo Bianco and Nosiola from Italy amongst them.
Viognier can be a difficult grape to grow because it is prone to powdery mildew. It has low and unpredictable yields and should be picked only when fully ripe. When picked too early, the grape fails to develop the full extent of its aromas and tastes. When picked too late, the grape produces wine that is oily and lacks perfume. When fully ripe the grapes have a deep yellow colour and produce wine with a strong perfume and high in alcohol. The grape prefers warmer environments and a long growing season, but can grow in cooler areas as well.
The age of the vine also has an effect on the quality of the wine produced. Viognier vines start to hit their peak after 15–20 years.
The origin of the Viognier grape is unknown; it is presumed to be an ancient grape, possibly originating in Dalmatia (present day Croatia) and then brought to Rhône by the Romans. One legend states that the Roman emperor Probus brought the vine to the region in 281 AD; another has the grape packaged with Syrah on a cargo ship navigating the Rhône river, en route to Beaujolais when it was captured, near the site of present day Condrieu, by a local group of outlaws known as culs de piaux.
The origin of the name Viognier is also obscure. The most common namesake is the French city of Vienne, which was a major Roman outpost. Another legend has it drawing its name from the Roman pronunciation of the via Gehennae, meaning the "Road of the Valley of Hell". Probably this is an allusion to the difficulty of growing the grape.
Viognier was once fairly common. In 1965, the grape was almost extinct when there were only eight acres in Northern Rhône producing just 1,900 litres of wine. The popularity and price of the wine have risen, and the number of plantings has increased. Rhône now has over 740 acres (3.0 km2) planted.
In 2004, DNA profiling conducted at University of California, Davis showed the grape to be closely related to the Piedmont grape Freisa and to be a genetic cousin of Nebbiolo. We also know, through DNA analysis, that Viognier is related to Mondeuse Blanche and is therefore closely related to Syrah.