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Stefan Vetter, Savior of Sylvaner

November 12, 2019

Story: Megan Krigbaum

photo: Collin Moody

He turned one of Germany’s most underappreciated grapes into a cult obsession.

Eleven years ago, Stefan Vetter was home celebrating the Christmas holiday with his family in Germany’s Franken region when he opened the local newspaper to a page advertising a lease on a small 50-year-old sylvaner vineyard in nearby Casteller Kirchberg. Most winemakers would be forgiven if they blew past the posting. After all, sylvaner is a grape whose common descriptor is “nondescript.” Even in Franken, where sylvaner is the white grape, a half-century-old vineyard isn’t the kind of commodity it might be in most of the world’s top winemaking regions. But in this rare old plot of vines, Vetter saw an opportunity.

“Sylvaner can be much better than just having high alcohol and low acid,” he says in a hushed, contemplative tone. “It can be as interesting as chenin [blanc], if you treat it well.” The reference to that French grape, which has become a calling card for a new generation of progressive sommeliers, is telling. In short order, Vetter’s sylvaners became a knowing handshake among the same set, presenting bottlings of the grape that, as Vetter’s importer Stephen Bitterolf puts it, “are so unique that they work outside the canon.”

Such as there is one. The sylvaner grape slipped over the Austria-Germany border in 1659, finding its real home in Franken. In the years since, it has popped into other regions of Europe—France’s Alsace, Italy’s Alto Adige. But to say that sylvaner has never exactly caught on with the wine-drinking populace is an understatement. That’s precisely why Vetter’s quick rise to cult status feels so unlikely.

The wines, though, find themselves in the Venn diagram intersection of weighty and high acid, a sweet spot that defines pretty much every white wine currently in vogue. “There’s something in the wines that’s very soft and healthful in this unusual way,” says Collin Moody, the wine director at Chicago’s Income Tax Bar. He likens them to the textural but crisp wines of Dominique Belluard in France’s Savoie, another sommelier darling. “These are wines I crave in my body,” he says. “It’s like when you have spigarello or kale salad and it’s delicious in a very wholesome and embodied way—as opposed to being wholesome in a visceral, hedonistic way.”

The tension and textural complexity of Vetter’s sylvaners are the result of both vine age and the severity of his sites. In the years since he purchased that first vineyard, Vetter has accumulated around 30 small plots of extremely steep, terraced vineyards that offer up varying streaks of limestone and sandstone, and vines that push a century old at the top end. “Some spots are a mix, but probably 60 percent are pure sandstone or limestone,” he guesses, pointing out that sylvaner from limestone is rounder, with softer acidity (as evidenced by his Muschelkalk), where the sandstone gives purer flavors, with more linear acid (see his Sandstein). He bottles a number of different sylvaners every vintage, including several single-vineyard versions, like Rosenrain (from a parcel of ungrafted vines planted in 1934), and an outlier or two, like Schale, Stiel & Stengel (loosely, skins, stems and stalks), an orange wine that’s left on its skins for at least 18 months.

The wines, none more than 11.5 percent alcohol, are not preening or extreme in any direction. Part of Vetter’s tack is harvesting way earlier than anyone else. “We stop a week before our neighbors start,” he says. The idea is to catch the grapes before the alcohol shoots up and the acidity drops. He then ages everything on its lees in barrel, some for years, before release.

“They’re a textural experience,” says Cubby Dimling, co-owner of Red & White, a wine shop that has been the go-to for natural wine in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, and its new companion restaurant, Noisette. “They have this sort of cleaning freshness and luminous acidity. They’re more quiet wines; they don’t have so much ambition in terms of bold flavors—that’s what suits them to Stefan.”

Vetter has been described as humble, shy, full of self-doubt and awkward in a cute, endearing way. When he laughs, it’s almost in a whisper. That this modest winemaker is elevating an equally modest grape with such success is evidence of how little we actually know when it comes to wine’s less-trodden terroirs. It’s just a matter of the right person stepping up to give us a new way to see them.

Almost always, it takes a defiant streak. And even Vetter has one, it turns out. Everyone who has visited him mentions that there’s a different side of the winemaker that comes out only in his cellar. In what could be described as either masterful secrecy or intuitiveness, he names his barrels not for the plots where the grapes are grown, but rather for the character of the wine within. One that particularly stood out to Moody?

A barrel of sylvaner whose name tag read: “Fuck politeness.”

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