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Elena Walch

Elena Walch

As an architect in her 30s, Elena Walch married into the family of the largest vineyard owner in Alto Adige, Italy. She is a strong, driven woman and Werner Walch may not have known what he was in for. Today, it is her name on the wine label not Werner's, and the Elena Walch wines are some of the best known from the region. Her delightfully balanced Gewürztraminer is one of the world's best examples of a wine that is notoriously difficult to make well.

Why is Elena's name on the label if it is her husband's family's estate? Werner Walch is alive and well and still running his part of the winery in his own way, using the long established Wilhelm Walch brand. Werner makes his wines in the manner he was taught when he took over the family business aged 19, after the death of his father. Using a combination of his own grapes and some purchased grapes, he makes good volumes of wine fermented and aged in stainless steel that sells at extremely competitive prices for its quality. He and Elena share his parents' ancestral home, his family's winery and its complement of talented staff.

Elena met Werner through mutual friends in the city of Bolzano, where they were both living. With a population of just 100,000, Elena had already made herself known by opening her own architectural studio rather than going to work for somebody else. "This was very unusual for an architect then, especially a woman," she said. "I was building houses for farmers and telling them what to do. Their view was very narrow."

Elena was 35, Wilhelm 34, when they married and it's worth noting that despite his family's huge tracts of land he wasn't necessarily a great catch. The Italian wine industry was not in the rudest health in 1985, particularly in the north where they made mostly indifferent white wines.

Elena was a sophisticated woman born and raised in Milan, now going to live on a farm, and she had big ideas from the time she arrived in the Walch home. She loved the building, with its beautifully designed ceilings and its ancient heating system that required the windows to be thrown open to let all of the smoke out, and she loved the winery with its huge, intricately carved casks. Despite having no experience of the wine business, on her travels she had noticed that people in other countries were beginning to take wine more seriously rather than just buying a carafe of local white, as was still common in Bolzano. This led her to believe that hand-crafted, artisanal wines were the future although her husband, the expert, disagreed.

As a result, Elena and Werner set up separate winery systems under the same roof and they split their grape harvest between them. Despite this vinous divorce, in life they are still happily married and have two daughters who grew up in rooms right above the fermenting grapes. No wonder both girls work at the winery today.

Elena makes around 40,000 cases of wine per year so she's not a small producer, but her husband makes substantially more, buying grapes from 100 different farmers as well as using his own. Elena produces two ranges of wine: the delicious and more forward Selezione range and the even more impressive single vineyard wines from Werner's properties of Castel Ringberg and Kastelaz. One of the biggest differences between Elena's wines and those of her husband is that she uses oak barriques for her "cru" white wines, ageing about 15% of the wine in them to give a rounder, firmer mouthfeel.

She also made big changes in the sections of the vineyards that she uses, and she says that this was the hardest change to convince her husband to do. She increased the density of planting and decreased the yields. "I have 2.5 times the number of vines but fewer grapes," she says. "Now everyone is planting this way, but thirty years ago it was unusual. It took quite a long time for people to understand it was better to be known for the quality rather than the quantity of your wine."

She does wonder what Werner's great-grandfather, who founded the winery in 1869, would think about her running her own show. "Maybe he would be shocked. Maybe he would be proud," she says. "The world is different now." Despite all of her work, in one significant fashion the male-dominant tradition continues at the winery. The huge, carved, wooden casks that Elena loves have initials on them for the men who run the company. There is one with "WW" on it for Werner, but no cask with the initials "EW" upon it. Elena says that even though their daughters will run both wineries some day they will not, in her lifetime, get their initials on a cask. Instead, they'll have to produce a male heir. "I think I must pay some respect to their great-grandfather," Elena says. After all, she's probably making better wines than Wilhelm Walch ever imagined possible.

The philosophy of the Elena Walch estate is dedicated to its terroir – the idea that wines must be the individual expression of their soil, climate and cultivation in the vineyard – and that this must be maintained in a sustainable manner for subsequent generations. Her firm belief that the quality of wine is created in the vineyard requires uncompromising work, taking into account the individual nature of each vineyard. With 55 hectares in cultivation, including the two top vineyards Castel Ringberg in Caldaro and Kastelaz in Tramin, Elena Walch belongs amongst the most important protagonists of Alto Adige winemaking.

The wines of Elena Walch show character, elegance and great personality, reflecting the highest standards of winemaking. The superb climate and the excellent location of the vineyards produce fresh and fruity white wines as well as concentrated and velvety red wines.

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