"If your farm is healthy, you don’t need input from the outside. It’s the yeasts of each vintage which tell the story of that year. If it is sick, and I have the medicine on my farm, I’d sooner try that out. That’s the first point of call."
Weingut Odinstal is a gem tucked away up in the clouds of the Pfalz. Situated at 350m elevation in a region where vine growing usually stops at 200m, Odinstal – under head winemaker Andreas Schumann – is an elevated island; a miracle terrain situated next to an old, watchful volcano.
But it’s not all idyll. Andreas has worked hard to bring the estate – founded in 1803 by the (then) Mayor of Wachenheim – into its present form; one of Germany’s most unique vineyards, with a diversity of soil uncharacteristic to the region. It takes guts to work unconventionally in a region known for its conventional approach, but that’s exactly what Andreas has done.
And if you ask him what he’s looking for at the helm of Odinstal, he’ll tell you it’s balance. Balance in life, and balance in his wines.
“I’m not looking for the feeling of licking a battery; hairs flying up, ready to head off to the disco.” He laughs, “I’m looking for balance. Something you can sit down and just enjoy; something that does good stuff to your body.”
Life’s good up in the clouds.
Meet Andreas Schumann
“I ended up at Odinstal via one of my educators - Hans-Gunther Schwarz - who managed the winery Muller-Catoir. He knew the owners of Odinstal way back then – from a small wine pub here in the region – it’s a really cool place where winemakers meet up.”
“They brought him here and asked him if he thought it would be possible to build one of the leading wineries up there… or if it was totally crazy. And, of course, he said ‘yes, it’s totally crazy. But it’s possible…"
And isn’t that how all good stories begin?
Andreas himself is originally from the region — he grew up a short ten minute drive from the winery. After undertaking a (practical) education at three different wineries, he went on to carry out his civil service in a winery working with people with disabilities. The final placement was at Muller-Catoir where he met Hans-Gunther (who eventually put him forward for his post at Odinstal). Soon after, Andreas went on to Geisenheim University to study Viticulture & Technology and after that, finished one final harvest at Weingut Wittman in Westhofen. From then on, he’s been at the helm of Odinstal. That was harvest 2004, he tells us.
As for the history of Odinstal itself? It’s just as rich as the soil it’s built on.
Weingut Odinstal is situated in Wachenheim; the small 5.5 hectare parcel of vines is planted on a rich and diverse soil variety—basalt, calcareous clay, shell limestone and red sandstone. This diversity is rare for the Pfalz region, particularly the presence of volcanic basalt. With a total surrounding area of 17 hectares, the parcel is bordered by mixed forest and meadows; a poor, but diverse terrain, Andreas explains.
“Experts at the time called him crazy — to grow wines at such elevation (350m), and use so much money to remove the forest and plant terraces and so on. But he had a big vision. At the time he planted mostly Gewürztraminer, very low in acidity good for this altitude, several hands later and it ended up with a family who is one of the pioneers in organic viticulture.”
The family had established organic farming way before regulations even existed; at the end of the ‘80s. And since 1992, the vineyards have been certified. But by this time, the family had decided to sell the property – they only came by every few weeks at most, and the villa was in a state of disrepair. “There was no water line, no electricity, nothing.”
“The family who now own the property were, at the time, searching for a winery – mainly to live in, actually, and not necessarily to produce wine – but then they found this place and it touched their hearts.”
So much so that they wanted to both live there and resuscitate the winery.
“The first thing that the owners had to do was bring up electricity and a water line, and then they built a plant cleaning system so as to not have to use canalisation. Which would have meant at such high elevation that it would have been extremely expensive.”
Naturally, the first vintages at Odinstal were very much dominated by what Andreas had learned at university, through education and hands-on experience.
“But since then I’ve been trying to free my mind of what I learnt there, and follow what nature tells us. We began organic, and in 2006 we made our first experiments with biodynamics. Since 2008 we work according to Demeter regulations, but it wasn’t until 2013 that we decided to get a Demeter certification. We’re one of the leading wineries regarding biodynamics in Germany.”
Coming from a scientific background, Andreas tells us that he had originally looked down on the idea of biodynamics–not uncommon for winemakers from a more technical background. But, after seeing that Villa Wolf (then known as J. L. Wolf) had converted to biodynamics, his interest was piqued.
“They hired someone to implement it. It was just for one year, but he’s one of the leading experts in Europe. He’s now at Geisenheim leading their trials where they compare conventional, organic and biodynamic viticulture. We became friends, and I always asked him about what he was doing. And then of course I had seen that many leading wineries in Burgundy and Alsace were also going this way — so there must be something in it.”
As it so often goes, a terrible storm in 2006 caused a huge loss in terms of harvest.
“In June, it looked like winter.”
With not one leaf or grape left, they began from scratch.
“I thought, ‘OK - I really have nothing to lose. I’ll try it [biodynamics] out’. We ended up with a 30% yield, and so naturally I thought: ‘wow, something worked here?’ So we stuck with it.”
“We began with using our usual spraying machine, and we bought some preparations. From then on we became better and better — we built our own preparation sprayer and we started a cooperation with a cattle farmer who, since then, brings some of his cows each year to our meadow. We also started a cooperation with a bee-keeper, and started to produce our own feed preparations.”
Today, biodiversity plays an integral role in the health and longevity of the Odinstal vineyards,
“We try to maximise diversity between vineyard rows. From cows we get manure from the neighbouring farm (where the cows are in winter), so we have essentially closed the circle – we don’t need any input from the outside. Biodynamic preparations can be done in-house too, with cows that already know the place.”
“In biodynamics we call it farm individuality; we have our own herbs, plants and preparations which are individual to our farm. We also spray teas, which we use to reduce copper and sulfur in the vineyard. And then of course we have a huge biodiversity with the ‘walls’ that we have between the vineyards.”
There is a huge amount of diversity with flowering covering crops – they are seeded between rows and in the meadow which is generally poor in terms of growth.
"We have seldom herbs and flowers. And of course when you do have those, you also find that you have specialised insects (butterflies, etc.). So we have relationships with environmental protection organisations who who rate the diversity of plants, insects and birds that we do find here."
Today, Odinstal (under Andreas) is best known for its elegant expressions of Riesling.
“I grew up with Riesling,” Andreas beams, “It has excellent capacity for terroir expression—if you let it. For me, Riesling is the variety - and also for Pfalz - and I think it has the greatest potential here.”
“We just had the first complete cellar tasting for this year just yesterday and I was so blown away; so happy with the Riesling from ‘19 and ‘20. I’m so happy to be able to grow Riesling in such a special place, where you can see such a marked difference even with just a slight slope. The vineyards are next to each other, but you get such different wines which are so interesting and inspiring.”
But since the start, their style of working has changed a lot – both in the vineyards and in the cellar.
“I came directly from university, where we used a lot of commercial yeasts, temperature control, and I was afraid of malolactic fermentation, and so on.”
That was 2004, Andreas recounts—his first vintage at Odinstal. Fast forward to 2007, and they had experimented with more than 50% spontaneous fermentation, and 2008 was the first vintage with no temperature control.
“Of course, with long fermentations and no temperature control we found the first malolactic fermentations occurring in our wines. It wasn’t bad at all.”
The wines, then, were made almost entirely in stainless steel. But the wines were not that stable in the long-term, and therefore Andreas knew that he had to change something.
“We were sure, however, that we didn’t want to go back to avoiding malolactic or using sulfites and temperature control.”
They started adding whole bunches into their fermentations – not to create orange wines, Andreas explains, but with the idea to increase the tannin structure of their whites.
“It’s roughly 10% of whole bunches that we put into the stainless steel tanks. Now, we have wines where we substitute acidity with a tannin structure which comes from the vineyards, and not from oak barrels that we buy from somewhere else in the world which don’t belong to the vineyard.”
In 2012, they decided to bottle just before the next harvest in order to keep the wines in the cellar on lees for as long as possible.
“And actually, with the last vintage, we decided to keep the best ones (our single vineyard Riesling – from Muschelkalk, Basalt and Sandstein) as well as the Weissburgunder Basalt, for almost two years in the cellar. Which really does bring us to the limit, logistically, because the cellar is less than 90m2. We bought another few tanks and put them everywhere... you can’t even turn around anymore,” he laughs.
Their first experiment with skin contact was in 2009, but only on a very small level, with the initial vintage in 2014.
“The basic idea was coming from the orange wine movement that started in southern Europe. They had the issue of very few people wanting to drink whites from the area, but now that they’ve started to skin-ferment the wines they have a nice grip, something to replace the acidity.”
With this in mind, they began to experiment.
“So we now make skin macerated wines, but it’s not necessarily representative of the winery. But that was the idea, I thought: ‘let’s replace some acidity’. We’re not totally low in acidity, but we’re lower than before as they go through malolactic fermentation now, and so we have to give them some tension and some grip.”
But in 2014, the region saw a lot of rain just before harvest. The skins became very thin.
“We knew the skins were delicate, and that we wouldn’t be able to get anything from them. So it made no sense to do skin maceration before pressing. I thought we could search for the few grapes left which had thick skins, but that was such a small yield.”
“So we realised we would have to increase the skin contact time. But this was really only for the two Basalt wines: Riesling and Weissburgunder. In 2015, we were really happy with it and we then did all of our single vineyard wines like that. It’s the case for almost every wine now, except for the Riseling 120 which we want to keep easier to understand – I believe an entry level wine shouldn’t be too complex.”
From this came the realisation that they could heavily influence the feeling of acidity in the wine.
“Not in an analytical sense, but if we add whole bunches with stems, then we can have a lot of influence coming from the ripeness of the stems. If we leave the very green stems, then we get an expression of high acidity, and when they’re quite ripe it’s much more like the tannic structure of a red.”
There’s no better representation of Odinstal than Terrassen Nakt – a Riesling blend of three different vintages which is touched very sporadically throughout the year. The vineyard, a terrace on the hillside Altenburg, is worked entirely by hand and sprayed with only tea, compost extract, stone powder and whey. No sulfur or copper is used.