Elena Walch is a very interesting wine maker. Born into a German-speaking family, Elena was raised in Milan but went to German schools. Trained as an architect, she eventually left her first career and embarked on her second when she married into the Walch family. Elena noted, in an interview in November, that she was not easily accepted into the wine community. She explained that the main issue was not that she was a woman but that she was not from the Alto Adige region.
The Alto Adige is a region in the North-East of Italy, quite close to the Austrian and Swiss border. The region used to be part of Austria and many of its inhabitants still wish and feel that it is primarily part of Europe and not so much part of Italy. There are three main cities in the area and numerous beautiful towns and villages: Bolzano, Trento and Merano. Bolzano is the most Germanic of the cities and its inhabitants will likely respond in German before speaking in Italian if you ask directions. Trento is a slightly more Italian city but not by much and is famous as the location of the Council of Trent. Merano is the seat of Italy’s second most important wine fair, www.meranowinefestival.com and home to world famous thermal baths and spas. Merano, because of its location, has a Mediterranean climate. While each of these cities is beautiful in its own right, most of the attraction in the Alto Adige is its naturalistic beauty. Skiing is an important activity as are numerous other outdoor sports. The area is covered in vines and fruit trees in the valleys with the majestic Alps in the background. It is a remarkable site to see either from the train or from a car window. Castles dot the landscape, remnants of an earlier time.
The Alto Adige region is famous for its white wines made from Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Grigio among others. Elena Walch often wins prizes for her wines made from these indigenous grape varieties. Her Gewurztraminer Kastelaz 2006 and Lagrein Castel Ringberg Riserva 2004 both received Tre Bicchieri honors from Italy’s Gambero Rosso this year. She is particularly proud of the attention which another one of her wines – Kermesse – has been receiving. I tasted this wine for the first time at the Puck Building in New York City during a wine tasting of Alto Adige producers in February. Elena was glowing as she talked about her wines and the way they were made. She proudly had me taste Kermesse which was made using red grape varieties. Alto Adige is very high in altitude so it is surprising to find such well made wine from such delicious and ripe red grapes. She had a real twinkle in her eye as she talked about the possibility of making red wines in the Alto Adige. She said that restricting yields, something she has been working on for a considerable amount of time, is the way to produce quality wines in the Alto Adige. Kermesse 2004 is a blend of Merlot, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Lagrein and Cabernet Sauvignon. She wouldn’t tell me the percentages of the grapes in the wine but she smiled widely when I looked shocked that she had planted and successfully grown Syrah in the Alto Adige. The wine was exquisite with layers of fruit, spices, oak notes and tobacco emanating from the glass. The palate was exactly what I would have expected from the nose, with perhaps a touch more fruit.
Another mysterious blend that Elena makes is her wine called Beyond the Clouds. I was very happy when I ran into her because as I was transcribing the interview from November, I had realized that I hadn’t written down the blend. She laughed when I asked and said, exactly, that she didn’t want me to focus on the blend but on the “insieme “(group) of aromas and flavors. Beyond the Clouds is a white wine blend with a base of Chardonnay. The other grape varieties involved are still a mystery to me despite my most subtle and not so subtle questions to Elena. L’Associazione Italiana Sommelier (AIS), the Italian Sommelier Association, awarded Beyond the Clouds, its highest honors – 5 grape bunches on a scale from 1 to 5. These two wines seem to really tickle her fancy even if the wines for which she receives the most awards are those made from varieties which are indigenous to the Alto Adige region: Gewurztraminer and Lagrein. It will be interesting to see if her bet on red wines in the Alto Adige translates into larger changes in consumer preferences and tastes.
To contact and read more about Elena, check out her website: www.elenawalch.com. Her importers are Artisan wines/American Wines. In order to get more information about wines from the Alto Adige, check out www.vinialtoadige.com.
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Women in Wine Fridays is a series that began almost 15 years ago. Elena Walch was one of the very first women I interviewed. I’ve seen her throughout the years and watched her daughters blossom into their roles in the company.