“We think the goal of German wine is to express its fruitiness and its minerality, its depth in conjunction with its finesse.” — Markus Spindler
In 1620, Sontag Spindler left Burgundy for the Pfalz — just as the Thirty Years War was making this a uniquely inauspicious time to resettle in the Palatinate. Almost impossibly, Spindler took the long view. He began to purchase vineyards and not only survived the war, but at its end was in a position to acquire one of the world’s most revered parcels, the Kirchenstück. In 1828, Spindler’s foresight was confirmed when this site was assessed at the highest tax rate in the land. But Napoleonic Law splintered Spindler’s descendants’ holdings and the estate was evenly divided among three brothers. Since that time, Weingut Heinrich Spindler has taken its place among the great estates of Forst, with holdings in some of the world’s most exalted and dynamic vineyards. None of this is lost on Markus Spindler, great-grandson of Heinrich Spindler and 11th generation since Sontag. In 2007, Markus stepped up to carry forward the now 20-hectare, certified organic estate with a level of skill and respect equal to the heritage and parcels entrusted to him. From his everyday bottlings to the Grosse Lagen, the wines are tactile, focused, detailed, and decidedly dry. They are about nuance and purity over power, grace and precision over opulence. Above all, they are meticulously wrought portraits of legendary terroir.
With a mild, startlingly Mediterranean climate, palm, fig, and citrus trees flourish through much of the Pfalz, alongside a vast range of grape varieties. In and around the village of Forst, however, riesling reigns supreme. Here, a fairly narrow swath of gentle south and east facing slopes rises behind the village itself to the edge of the sheltering Haardt Mountains, an extension of Alsace’s Vosges. The Haardt are crowned by the Palatinate Forest — part of the largest contiguous forest in Western Europe and a designated UNESCO biosphere reserve.
Forst’s top sites — Markus is blessed with tiny parcels in each — are midslope, some 120 to 150 meters [390 to 490 feet] above sea level. Here vines benefit from early morning sun and rising breezes. The sites are distinguished by their varying microclimates and soil compositions: colored sandstone, primarily shell limestone, and basalt — deep, layered, and rich enough in clay to protect vines from hydric stress. Some sites are underlain with what amounts to a ribbon of slate or limestone that conducts or retains water very beneficially in this warm, dry region.
Colored sandstone defines the Pfalz, from the great red and yellow blocks of it that form the walls of Speyer Cathedral to the soils in some of the best sites of the Mittelhaardt. The sandstone was formed 250 million years ago, when ancient rivers laid down their sediment in a then desert-like landscape. Oxidized iron accounts for the red variant; thermal waters that dissolved the iron content account for the yellow.
Perhaps the most unexpected feature of Forst is its outcrop of basalt. We can’t exactly call the Pfalz a volcanic region, but when the Rhine valley collapsed some 50 million years ago, magma was forced to the surface and cooled to produce black basalt stone. Basalt is a notable component of several sites, including Pechstein, Jesuitengarten, and Kirchenstück. Forst’s growers haven’t left it entirely to nature to distribute this prized element: for centuries, they have collected, then scattered basalt shards in their vineyards to help retain heat and capture the opulence and smoky salinity basalt can impart to riesling.
In the 1980s, Flurbereinigung, the German system of voluntary/mandated vineyard reorganization, came to Forst. This massive project involved regrading, improving water flow and vine access, and of course, replanting. It has taken decades, but today the vines have come fully into their own.
Although Forst’s vineyards seem predestined for riesling, up until the early to mid-20th century, these sites (as with the rest of Germany) were predominantly planted as field blends. But, according to Markus, in Forst, the percentages of other varieties, mostly silvaner and gewürztraminer, were very low and by the 20th century, riesling was always on the label. Another variety that has established itself quite distinctively in the region over the past 15 years is Sauvignon Blanc. Markus takes it just as seriously as his riesling.
Markus began his winemaking career in 1996, with apprenticeships in the Pfalz at Dr. Deinhard (now von Winning) and Friedrich Becker, and in the Saar under Egon Müller. Even those experiences did not completely convince Markus he wanted to step into the life that awaited him. He fulfilled a civil service tour and then took on a year-long stage at Schug in Sonoma, California. Putting some time and space between him and the family estate gave Markus perspective: “I needed the distance to realize what a treasure we have at home.” Markus returned to Germany and enrolled in the country’s top wine school, Geisenheim. “I have always been fascinated by the aging potential of the riesling grape, so I asked the wine chemistry department if I could do my thesis in this area. This led to a study of approximately 30 wines from eight vintages, with particular emphasis on the analysis of volatile aromatic compounds.” During this time he also undertook further apprenticeships, at Château Capion in the Languedoc and at F.X. Pichler in the Wachau. After graduating in 2007, he returned to Forst to work with his father, Hans. Eleven years later, Markus took full responsibility for the estate, including its well-regarded Gutsausschank (“like a taproom, but for wine,” Markus modestly explains) in which his brother Florian’s exceptional cooking is matched with bottles from the Spindler cellar.
Vineyards and farming
To walk the Spindler parcels is to hear the echoes of history and feel the power of terroir. It is best to start with the Kirchenstück, a 3.7 hectare “clos” directly behind the village church (Kirche). Its protected microclimate is enhanced by the low sandstone walls that enclose it, absorbing the sun’s warmth during the day and gradually releasing it at night, also ensuring air movement that shields vines from frost. Markus has a 0.28 hectare sliver. He notes: “The soils here are sandstone scree, sandy clay and basalt, planted strictly to riesling.” The best wines from the Kirchenstück, though typically ripe, are not the most full-bodied wines in the Pfalz. Instead, they are a dialectic of finesse and complexity, elegance and power, succulence and structure.
The origins of the name Ungeheuer (“monstrous” in English) have long been debated, but Markus cites the most convincing, arguing: “The vineyard was first mentioned in official documents in 1470, as the ‘an dem Ungehuwern.’ In the parlance of the time, this referred to the ‘unsettled and unsettling’ nature of this area west of Forst. Parcels in the center of the hillside are protected from westerly winds and exhibit an extremely diverse range of soils. The western border of the vineyard is formed by a primordial shell limestone reef and the vineyards around it have a correspondingly high share of limestone.” At 32 hectares, it’s one of the largest Forst sites as well as one of the driest and warmest, but thanks to a large proportion of deep clay, vines are kept cool and hydrated. Markus has a choice 1.5 hectare parcel in the steeper limestone reef section. “Cool air flows in nightly from the woods,” Markus explains, “extending the ripening period for the grapes and boosting aromatic development. The soil is clayey sand and limestone scree.”
Then there is Pechstein, the vineyard “Riesling lovers love,” says Markus. The reason? Pechstein means “pitch stone” and it refers to the basalt that comprises this 17-hectare site and translates into wines of great density, with an unmissable smoky-salty intensity. The Spindler’s 0.9-hectare parcel imparts a bitter phenolic component to the rieslings grown here — “like quince or grapefruit, but is always clear and deep in its minerality,” notes Markus.
According to the 1828 tax classification, the second-best site in the Pfalz is the 7-hectare Jesuitengarten. Here Markus has 0.26 hectares of riesling vines on rich loam, colored sandstone, and basalt. A slate layer 1.5 meters below the surface ensures a healthy channeling of water from the mountains to this site.
Markus regards the 8.6-hectare Musenhang as “one of the best vineyards of this category,” an Erste rather than Grosse Lage. He has a 0.33 hectare slice that he prizes for “its cooler microclimate, strongly influenced by the nearby forest, where ripeness is good but never excessive, where limestone soils show more structure and minerality.”
Throughout their holdings, the Spindlers have been committed to farming without the use of herbicides, pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers for nearly 20 years. Markus officially converted to organic viticulture in 2012, an easy and natural transition as all of the groundwork had been laid in the preceding decades.
“I think if you want to make top-level wines with character, the basis is healthy soil with a great variety of microorganisms, insects, and a high humus. It’s important to me to have an ecosystem in my vineyards with variety, both above and below the soil,” Markus points out. “Homemade compost, diverse cover crops, and strictly biological plant management techniques are essential for us. Our intensive use of compost — including pomace, straw, and horse manure — allows us to deal with heat and drought when they come.”
All the top sites are harvested by hand, with picking crews making two, sometimes three passes for quality. Markus is responding to climate change with more sensitive canopy management, removing leaves only on the north side of the plant, and making a very thoughtful, focused use of cover crops. “This is really important,” he notes. “We have a mix of 50 different plants to give the soil a nice structure and to protect it from tractor compaction. We only cover every other row due to competition for water and mow the cover crops only in case of drought.”
In the cellar
Not surprisingly for someone who wrote his thesis on the evolution of aromatics in aging rieslings, Markus sees his greatest challenge in the cellar as “preserving the full range of natural aromas.” To achieve this, grapes are pressed gently, at low pressure, with limited use of pumps and maximal reliance on gravity. Macerations are short, fermentations start with ambient yeast, though sometimes cultured yeast is added to ensure the rieslings finish fully dry. Markus prefers long, cool ferments in stainless steel and neutral Stück (1200L) and Doppelstück (2400L) oak casks. The wines remain on the fine lees, with occasional batonnage, until they are bottled between February and June after harvest. Attention to every facet of the process is obvious from the everyday Gutsriesling, sourced from holdings in and around Forst, to the arresting and expressive single vineyards. While his village-level Forster Riesling is raised in 80% stainless, 20% neutral cask, the single vineyards vary, dependent on site, but tend to be fermented and raised in entirely in stainless, again with the emphasis on capturing the panoply of nuanced aromas. For his sauvignon blanc, Markus says he is looking to make a drinkable, fruit-driven style. “By staggering the harvest in various stages of ripeness, we get a sauvignon blanc of complexity and variation. The nose of exotic fruits (passion fruit, mango) against a backdrop of green aromas leads to an incisive wine of structure and length.”