The Woman Winemaker Who Reinvigorated Italy's Alto Adige Region, Interviewed by Her Daughter
Elena Walch never intended to become the queen of Gewürztraminer. But when love and marriage brought her to the vineyards of Alto Adige in the 1980s, she discovered a passion and skill for vineyard management and winemaking.
Elena Walch never intended to become the queen of Gewürztraminer. Born and raised in Milan, she was first a successful architect. But when love and marriage brought her to the vineyards of Alto Adige in the 1980s, she discovered a passion and skill for vineyard management and winemaking. Instead of partnering with her husband, Werner Walch, whose label dates back to 1869, Elena went her own way, rethinking the region’s winemaking traditions. She replanted vines according to soil type: Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling went into sandy soils, while her award-winning Gewürztraminer, Merlot and Pinot Bianco were planted in chalky soils above Tramin. She charged more for her wines, which are made using sustainable practices with lower-yielding grapes. And people responded. Rather than shy away from her unorthodox practices, the locals embraced them—along with the exceptionally good wines they produced. Now, Elena’s own self-titled label overshadows her husband’s, and she has ensured that the winery will continue under strong female leadership. Her two daughters, Karoline and Julia, have followed in her footsteps and now work under the matriarch’s label. Here, Karoline interviews her mother about what it was like to be a pioneer in the Italian wine industry.
Why did you decide to start making wine?
I was an independent architect for many years and never thought about being a winemaker. But I met my future husband, Werner Walch, while doing restorations on his Castel Ringberg castle in Alto Adige, and love brought me to the little village of Tramin, where I was surrounded by nothing but vines. I always had a passion for wine and had traveled to many wine regions, so I recognized that the Walch family owned some of the most unique vineyards in Alto Adige. A desire to better showcase this special terroir is really what started my winemaking career.
How did Papà react to your decision to enter into his family’s business?
He wanted to include me in his family’s business. He quickly realized that I had some very good ideas that would elevate the quality of the wines, such as ripping up and replanting vines, switching to the high-maintenance Guyot training system and implementing higher-density plantings. He always believed in me and my vision for producing top-quality, terroir-driven wines.
What was it like to be a woman in the industry at that time?
In the early '80s, it wasn’t easy to be a woman in the wine industry. It was difficult enough to make drastic changes to the winery and wines, but it was even harder as a woman in a profession traditionally reserved for men. It required extra discipline and dedication and, most importantly, outstanding wines.
What's it like to work with Julia and me?
I can´t imagine anything better! For many years, I worked hard at my estate while also raising two children. I always gave you the freedom to decide your own path, and it thrills me that you’ve both chosen to follow your passion for wine. It’s a great honor to know that what I’ve worked so hard to create will be passed on to the next generation. Family “fights” and discussions are an integral part of our day-to-day life, but it’s this open communication that keeps Elena Walch winery so dynamic and forward-thinking.