Every once in a while, in the world of wine, we come across a story that inspires and teaches a valuable lesson. The story of Elena Walch – her namesake winery and label – is one of those, a story of success achieved through one woman’s focus on her own instinct and gritty hard work. When Elena was hired in her early thirties to restore a 17th century Austrian Hapsburg castle in the Trentino-Alto Adige area of Northern Italy, she did not yet know that she would soon fall in love with the surrounding vines and with the man who owned them. Nor did she foresee, at that time, the wave of change that she would help bring to this previously overlooked wine region of Italy.
Elena Walch: From Architect to Winemaker
Elena Walch grew up in the city of Milan, where she earned a degree in architecture at a German high-school. She continued her studies at the University IUAV di Venezia and after graduating in 1976, moved to Alto Adige, where her work as an architect quickly earned her a great reputation. In 1983, she was contracted by a local winemaker by the name of Werner Walch to restore a historical building located on his family estate. The property in question was the Castel Ringberg, built in the Renaissance style by the Hapsburg dynasty back in 1620, now surrounded by neat rows of healthy green grape vine. During her time spent working on the castle, Elena and Werner fell in love, and they were married two years later. Elena had also fallen in love with the vineyards of Alto Adige and the winemaking lifestyle, deciding to transition out of architecture to fully dedicate herself to the Walch family business. Her husband, an experienced winemaker of the region, trained her in the trade, supporting her natural curiosity and thirst for knowledge about vines. The more she learned, the clearer Elena’s vision became: to produce beautiful wines that properly expressed the personality of the terroirs and the varietals best adapted to them.
The adjacent wine regions of Trentino and Alto Adige sit on the mountainous landscape of the Southern Alps. As the northernmost Alto Adige was once part of Austria, German is spoken alongside Italian in this region. The red grape varietal of Schiava historically dominated as the region’s most prominent varietal. At the time, the original Wilhelm Walch label, dating back to 1869, was made from a combination of the estate’s own fruit and grapes sourced from almost 100 different growers in the region. Moved by the quality and distinctive personality of the estate’s Alto Adige terroir, Elena urged her husband to do more with his family’s vineyards, along with the hand-carved oak casks, over a century old, that she found in the winery. But the winemaker was busy and preferred to continue in the footsteps of his predecessors. So the couple came up with a new arrangement – two labels housed in the same winery. Werner would continue to manage the original label, while Elena would start her own “Elena Walch” label with grapes grown in the estate’s own vineyards. Her goal was to make wines worthy of her husband’s beautiful estate, wines that would bring international recognition to the region and its terroir.
Introducing New Varietals to Trentino – Alto Adige
Elena worked closely with Walch estate winemaker Gianfranco Faustin. Together they began replanting over productive Schiava vineyards with local and international varieties that better suited the climate and soil. Vines were planted at a higher density but with care taken to reduce the yield, for a higher concentration of aromatics and flavour. She worked with 10 vineyards altogether, out of which the single vineyards Castel Ringberg and Kastelaz stood out as producing the most qualitative wines. The gravelly and sandy soils of Castel Ringberg provided an excellent environment in which to grow Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Lagrein and Schiava. Elena began producing single-vineyard varietal wines from this area in the 1990’s. Meanwhile, the chalky soils and rare southern exposure of Kastelaz was perfect for Gewürztraminer, Pinot Bianco and Merlot.
It was specifically the Gewürztraminer from the Kastelaz vineyard that first sparked international interest in Elena’s wine. First produced in 1997, this wine quickly became known for its delicate aromas, not overly perfumed or sweet. Another success story was that of Walch’s Beyond the Clouds cuvee, began in 2000, and made from a barrel-fermented blend of 80% Chardonnay and 20% a blend of four out of five other white varieties (Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc) crushed together. In total, Elena grows 13 varietals to produce 28 different wines, sold in 50,000 cases per year.
Sustainable Revolution in Winemaking at Walch
In addition to mixing up the varietal landscape of the estate’s vineyards, Elena also implemented a series of sustainable agriculture practices, which are now used by many other winemakers in the region. Such practices in the vineyard includes mulching the soil to increase nutrient content, using organic fertilisers and halting the use of herbicides to preserve the natural levels of nitrogen in the soil. More and more of the vineyards are cultivated organically and water-saving drip irrigation is employed throughout the estate. In the cellar, 45% of electricity is provided by solar energy, 50% of water consumption is reduced through a water recycling system and energy is saved by relying on a gravity system instead of pumps to move the wine from one place to another. Even the packaging of the wine is done with eco-friendly practices – using corks from FSC-certified forests and glue-free packaging.
The Future of Elena Walch
In 2013, Elena and Werner’s two daughters, Karoline and Julia, finished their studies in wine management and oenology. Having spent their childhood in bedrooms located just above the cellar, the girls grew up with winemaking practically in their blood. After honing their natural skills abroad (Karoline in Adelaide, Australia and Julia in Dijon, France), they returned home to help run the family business, combining their knowledge of New and Old World winemaking to contribute significantly to their mother’s project. In collaboration, the all-female team began building a new gravity-fed winery with a brand new, high-tech fermentation cellar that works with the idea of fermenting grapes and/or bunches whole in order to preserve the fruit flavours and achieve softer tannins. They also purchased 18 hectares of new vineyards near Termeno and further south in the Trento DOC, currently best known for its classic method sparkling wines. Their newest project? Sparkling. 2017 will mark the first vintage of old Chardonnay for the production of 650 cases of Blanc de Blancs sparkling wines, to be released only after 2022.
Some of Our Favourites From Elena Walch
Elena Walch : Pinot Grigio “Castel Ringberg” 2016
The single-varietal Elena Walch Pinot Grigio “Castel Ringberg” is produced from grapes grown in the Vigna Castel Ringberg vineyard of the Alto Adige DOC. The grapes undergo gentle pressing and static clarification, after which a part of the juice ferments in stainless steel tanks at 20°C, while around 15% ferments in French oak barriques, followed by malolactic fermentation. The wines are blended shortly before bottling in the spring.
The Pinot Grigio “Castel Ringberg” 2016 by Elena Walch displays a pale straw yellow colour at the time of tasting. On the nose, ripe fruit aromas can easily be detected, including ripe pear, along with spicy notes that add complexity. The palate is distinguished by a rare elegance and harmony with beautiful acidity, balanced with a freshness and creamy roundness. The wine also offers mineral notes toward the end, and a long, refreshing finish. This wine will age for 8-15 years.Discover this Wine
Elena Walch : Lagrein Riserva Vigna “Castel Ringberg” 2013
The single-varietal Lagrein Riserva Vigna “Castel Ringberg” from Elena Walch is produced in the Alto Adige DOC in the Vigna “Castel Ringberg” vineyard. The must of the grapes ferment for around 10 days before undergoing malolactic fermentation in stainless steel tanks. The wine is matured in French oak barrels (100% new) for a period of 20 months. The wine is further aged in bottle for several months before release.
The Elena Walch Lagrein Riserva Vigna “Castel Ringberg” 2013 displays a deep and dark garnet red colour at the tasting. On the nose, this wine is very complex, with aromas of fruit and spice, red berries, plums, chocolate, dehydrated figs and a touch of smoke. On the palate the wine offers juicy tannins, robust in structure but silky smooth and well-rounded, along with a nice bite and a long, satisfying finish. This wine can be kept for 15-18 years.Discover this Wine
Elena Walch : Grande Cuvée “Kermesse” 2013
The Elena Walch Grand Cuvee Kermesse 2013 is classified a Vino Rosso d’Italia, and contains a blend of Syrah, Petit Verdot, Lagrein, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The first four varietals are harvested and processed all together, while the Cabernet Sauvignon ripens later. The must is fermented in stainless steel for 20 days and then undergoes malolactic fermentation. The wine matures in French oak barriques (almost all of which are new) for 18 months. They also mature in bottle for several month before commercial release.
The Elena Walch Grand Cuvee Kermesse 2013 shows off a very intense purplish red colour. The nose is intense with many layers of spice, subtle touches of tobacco, chocolate and pepper, along with red berries and dried figs. The palate is powerful but very elegant with beautifully integrated tannins, toasted aromas and a long finish. This wine can be aged 15-20 years =.Discover this Wine