This post is a profile of the virtually unknown Odinstal vineyard at Wachenheim in the Pfalz, a monopole recently rehabilitated by a new owner and his remarkable winegrower, now producing Rieslings (among other vartieties) of truly uncommon interest.
All but one of Wachenheim’s best vineyards are found between the town center and Forst, on well manicured, gently sloping, sandstone-based land between 140 and 180 meters above sea level. The outlier is Odinstal, which sits two hundred meters higher, in the foothills of the Haardt Mountains, southwest of town as the crow flies, up a sinuous and partially unpaved road through forest, buffered from other vineyards and other agriculture, almost on the rim of an ancient volcanic crater. It commands an exceptional view across the Rhine rift valley.
Odinstal is actually several vineyards side-by-side. First there are areas of more of less pure basalt that once poured molten from the crater. (Some of that found its way downhill to the Pechstein vineyard in Forst, where it is said to give a special character to the wines.) Then, on both sides the access road that links Odinstal with Wachenheim, there are areas of limestone and sandstone, not jumbled together as they are throughout the rest of the Mittelhaardt, but quite distinctly separate. The highest elevation point in Odinstal is 350 meters above sea level, a tad higher than the top of Kastanienbusch in Birkweiler, which is usually cited as the “roof” of the Pfalz. This isolated terrain seems not to have been planted with vines, or otherwise exploited agriculturally, until early in the 19th Century, when the unimproved land was purchased by the then mayor of Wachenheim, one Johann Ludwig Wolf, who later created the quite separate and unrelated wine estate known today as J. L. Wolf Erben. Wolf cleared several hectares in Odinstal to plant vines, probably concentrating on the basaltic soils; “roten Boden” had especially attracted his attention. He also built the handsome, Mansard-roofed stone house that still stands today, whose upper floors are said to have housed staff who worked the vines. The house fell into disrepair over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and was not connected to running water or electricity until 2003.
Odinstal was and remains a monopole. Although the property changed hands several times, it was never divided. The first change of ownership occurred when Wolf lost it in a card game to another Wachenheimer named Kuhn, then when Kuhn’s granddaughter brought it as dowry when she married into the Siben family of Deidesheim, and most recently, when Weingut Georg Siben Erben sold it to Thomas Hensel, see below, in 1998. At least part of the vineyard seems to have remained in production throughout these vicissitudes, although vines were replaced, blocks replanted and varietal composition altered.
Today Odinstal covers a total of 20 hectares, of which just five hectares are in vine; most of the rest remains as forest or meadow. 3.5 of the 5 hectares standing when the property was sold to Hensel have been retained, while 1.5 ha that Siben had used for Mueller-Thurgau have now been replanted to “more appropriate varieties.” Now the area under vine extends from the access road, which is found at the bottom of a shallow draw, up the slopes on each side, those on the north side of the road facing more or less south, while those on the south side face east or northeast. Two blocks on basalt anchor the south side, the higher of the two reaching almost to the rim of the crater; west of those and immediately below the residence-cum-winery is the lone limestone block, just 0.67 ha, on ground that slopes gently to the east. The higher of the two basalt blocks, which was planted in 2004, is dedicated to Auxerrois, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Blanc, while the lower basalt block, planted in 1983, is devoted entirely to Riesling. The limestone block – geologists refer to this type of shell limestone as Muschelkalk, which is also Odinstal’s name for the block –was developed in two phases. The first vines were planted in 1996, but the younger were not set out until 2009. On the north side of the road there are four vineyard blocks on colored sandstone (Bundsandstein), three of which are dedicated to Riesling; these were planted in 1978, 1983 and 1986 respectively. The fourth sandstone block, planted in 2004, is dedicated to Pinot Blanc. The fifth block on this side of the road is a type of mudstone that geologists call Keuper; this block was planted in 1988 to Silvaner and Pinot Blanc. All blocks except Muschelkalk are laid out in roughly north-south-oriented rows each two meters from the next, with various intervine spacings; vine rows in the limestone block run approximately east-west. Odinstal’s high elevation makes the site late-ripening overall, with Riesling rarely picked before mid-October and harvest sometimes delayed into the first half of November.
Odinstal’s trio of soil-specific Rieslings are exciting wines and a reminder, if any is needed, that different soils really do make quite different wines. The Muschelkalk Riesling is the most dynamic, fresh and exuberant of the trio, showcasing lime and other citrus fruits, green apple and occasionally pear in a wrapper of herbs; in warmer vintages the fruit component can shift toward melon and exotic tropical fruits. Muschelkalk is usually tightly knit, intense and sometimes even saline. The Bundsandstein Riesling is more overtly aromatic and flavorful, and its texture dustier overall; probably seeming more complex to some palates. The Basalt Riesling is the most baroque of the bunch: darker in its flavors, bigger in impression, tending toward orange-fleshed citrus with notes of cured meat and whiffs of smoke. Perhaps a perfect pairing for Melone e Prosciutto? In a tasting that combined vertical and horizontal components at the estate in June 2017, the 2013 wines were favorites across the board, a cool growing season having produced uniformly bright, high-acid wines with firm textures and low levels of residual sugar. From another cool vintage where patient growers were able to see complete ripeness with startlingly high acidities – 2010 – the only example in this tasting was the Muschelkalk. This exceptional wine showed beautifully near its seventh birthday: a cocktail of citrus and apple with herbs and exuberant minerality. Anyone who follows dry German Riesling should taste whichever Odinstals appear on his or her radar; just as anyone visiting the area should make time for the seems-long-but-is-in-fact-quite-short drive up the hill from the center of Wachenheim. (Appointments are mandatory, however, there is no tasting room here, nor any hospitality staff!)
Weingut Odinstal • 67157 Wachenheim
Today’s Weingut Odinstal is a recent creation. True that the house-cum-winery occupies a building originally constructed early in the 19th Century, and that some vineyard has been in production here ever since, but most contemporary production depends on vines planted since 2004. 2004 was also the first vintage to carry the Weingut Odinstal name and 2010 the first to include separate terroir-specific bottlings of Riesling from the three distinct soil types. The winery’s ascent to acclaim has been meteoric, beginning with recognition for the 2010 Muschelkalk Riesling in Der Feinschmecker’s Riesling Cup competition in 2012. Placements in Michelin-starred restaurants followed, then export to Scandinavian markets and the USA.
The proprietors are Thomas and Ute Hensel; he a successful real estate entrepreneur from Mannheim. They loved the site and the elegant ruin of a house, which they found easy to imagine as a home in which to raise their three young sons. Nearly a decade was required to persuade the Sibens to sell. Their determination to revive the old estate was born with time.
Since 2004, vineyards and cellar are have been in the hands of Andreas Schumann (b. 1978), a Neustadt- and Geisenheim-trained enologist who had previously worked at Dr. Deinhard (now Weingut von Winning) in Deidesheim, Mueller-Catoir in Haardt and Dr. Buerklin-Wolf in Wachenheim. Hensel charged Schumann to revive Odinstal’s identity as an estate winery, and as a wine estate, and to manage both vineyards and cellar without qualitative compromises. Taking advantage of the site’s isolation, biodiversity, and space for farm animals, and the misfortune of grave damage done to the vines by a highly unusual summer hailstorm, Schumann and Hensel began a transition to biodynamic viticulture in 2006. All necessary infusions are now made onsite, with nettles, yarrow and other plants grown on the estate, and cows pastured there during the warmer seasons of the year. Schumann loves working in the vineyards, and can often be found spraying biodynamic tinctures.
Odinstal’s Riesling portfolio is still a work in progress, but consists for the moment, in each vintage, of terroir-specific bottlings of Rieslings produced entirely from the Basalt, Muschelkank and Bundsandstein blocks, a sparkling wine made from now eight year old vines, and a “basic” Riesling called now called 120 NN. (NN is an abbreviation for Normal-Null, meaning sea level. When the basic wine was made from the young vines on the Odinstal site, it was called 350 NN.) The source for the 120 NN bottling is a vineyard on the border between Deidesheim and Friedelsheim, astride the 120-meter contour. The final 2015 edition of 120 NN, tasted in 2017, was a dry, friendly, yellow-fruited, Pfalz-type Riesling with floral overtones and some nice mid-palate grip. Atypically for the Pfalz, however, it was blessedly low in alcohol, around 11°. “Our interpretation of Pfalz Riesling,” Schumann explained: “bone dry, but with full malolactic conversion.”
Winemaking is so basic and straightforward – apart from a singular twist — that it seems revolutionary. Grapes are pressed after 6-18 hours of skin contact. But, for many wines in many vintages, a quantity of intact (neither destemmed nor crushed) clusters is added to the freshly pressed juice, where they remain for the duration of the primary fermentation, and for any malolactic conversion that may naturally occur, until the soup of juice and whole clusters is pressed again, nine or so months after the process started. There is no introduction of exogenous yeast, no addition of enzymes or colloidal material, certainly no bentonite, no temperature control, and very little sulfur. The winery’s tanks are a combination of stainless steel with wooden casks of all sizes, plus a few amphorae. The wood casks are custom coopered from forest behind the estate. Fermentations, both primary and secondary, are entirely autonomous. This means interalia that some wines finish very dry while others contain noticeable residual sugar. “Of course you can add yeast,” Schumann explains, “and maybe get the wine more dry, but you cannot get it more beautiful, and we care primarily about the balance that is born in the vineyard. In the cellar we accept what happens [naturally.]” After the post-fermentation pressing, the various press fractions are tasted; normally they are reintegrated with the main body of finished wine, but anything excessively phenolic is excluded. A few weeks later, normally in July following the vintage, the wines are bottled with minimal filtration and a touch more sulfur. Typical chemistry for the finished terroir Rieslings are around 12.5°, with total acids between 7 and 8 g/L, and residual sugar falling anywhere between 4 and 12 g/L. Schumann finds that Odinstal Rieslings typically “go through a valley two to three years after the vintage,” tasting fresh and energetic for their first year in bottle, but not fully impressive until the “begin to climb out of the valley” about four years after the vintage.