When one of Italy’s most celebrated winemaking regions boasts 3,000 years of viniculture, it’s hard to imagine there’s much room for improvement. Unless you’re Elena Walch.
In the 1980s, Elena married into one of the oldest winemaking families in Italy’s northern most wine region, Alto Adige (also known as South Tyrol), a stirring Alpine wonderland alive with countless castles, storybook villages, lush valleys and the most stunning vineyards in the world. With her she brought vision, paired with passion. And within a matter of years that potent combination saw Elena instill innovation into age-old winemaking practices — elevating Alto Adige wines into the realm of unrivaled quality.
When I first heard about Elena Walch I was instantly intrigued. How often are women celebrated for boldly challenging the status quo? Not nearly enough. Before we left on our latest South Tyrolean adventure, my husband, Vin, and I made plans to visit her estate. The trip did not disappoint.
Where Ancient Traditions Marry Modern Elegance
After finishing a late breakfast we drive about half an hour into the heart of Alto Adige’s winegrowing region — breezing past tempting photo opps and idyllic hillside towns along the South Tyrolean Wine Road (Weinstrasse). We eventually arrive at Tramin, an adorably ancient-looking village that’s home to the Elena Walch estate.
We park and meander through Tramin’s winding passageways toward the winery. The village peacefully invites you into the past. And if we were here on any other day I would have likely let its seductive stillness transport me. I make mental notes on sights to revisit later.
The church of St. Quirikus and Julitta in Tramin has the highest free-standing stone masonry tower in South Tyrol.
The Elena Walch estate unfolds from the cobblestone surroundings and reveals beautifully landscaped grounds bringing to mind a scene from The Secret Garden. Walking through the entrance we notice how modern elegance gracefully blends into the estate’s historic architecture. Anna Marsoner, our guide for the morning, soon greets us with a big warm smile and shares tour details as we follow her to the winery’s newest addition.
We walk into a room with towering glass walls graciously offering views of distant mountains. Anna invites us down steps into a state-of-the-art fermentation cellar. We are immediately struck by the happiest of all aromas — grapes becoming wine. Built in 2015, the cellar holds immense stainless steel fermentation tanks. An LED display beams from a nearby wall and Anna shows us how the winery applies climate control technology to produce vintages to exacting standards. The room is softly lit by violet lighting that delicately shimmers off each tank. Anna tells us Elena was an accomplished architect before her marriage. The exquisite ambiance of this space leaves no doubt in my mind.
Moving on we venture deeper into the cellar entering a vast room that looks to be carved out of a mountain. Here, more massive steel fermenting tanks stand against stone walls naturally cooling the cellar air. Anna ducks us into a tunnel that runs to a dark cavernous area. We encounter rows of French and Slovenian oak barriques masterfully aging wine into expressions distinct to Elena Walch.
She tells us the first building on the property was a Jesuit convent for 70 years before being purchased by the Austrian founder, Wilhelm Walch, in 1869. From here, we head up steps into another cellar where massive wooden casks surround us from all sides. As much as the new fermentation cellar gave us a peek into the winery’s future, these imposing wooden monoliths wow us back in time.
The face of each cask bears the ornate craftsmanship of woodcarvers from Val Gardena, a valley in Alto Adige’s Dolomites mountain range. Every chiseled mark forges a story commemorating significant occasions in the estate’s history. I stare at them as if I am in an art gallery and can’t help wonder how long it took to carve out such detail.
The oldest cask dates back to 1878. But, the one I find most interesting has a delightfully mischievous depiction. Thanks to a poor translation, the woodcarver etched horns on a likeness of Moses rather than the intended halo. The largest cask is born of Slovenian Oak from Croatia and holds 180 hectoliters. Anna quickly puts the number into terms we can grasp telling us it would take 65 years and 7 months to empty completely!
While admiring these historic casks, Anna informs us Elena Walch produces 500,000 bottles each year primarily from two nearby vineyards, Castel Ringberg and Kastelaz. In total, her vineyards comprise 60 hectares. Hard to picture? Imagine roughly 60 baseball fields flush with vines.
Continuing on we are surprised to learn hands pick every single grape that goes into an Elena Walch wine bottle. I am ready to volunteer. Anna also informs us the vineyards flourish without applying any herbicides. Elena was among the first in Alto Adige to make sustainability a hallmark of her wines. This meant producing wine in harmony with nature and reducing quantity to place a supreme importance on uncompromising quality.
Taking such a position was initially met with resistance by wine producers firmly rooted in tradition, but the value of preserving vineyards for future generations has become a celebrated standard in Alto Adige thanks to pioneers like Elena. Nearly every facet of her wine production considers the environmental impact — from practicing sustainable cultivation to solar powering the estate to using corks from forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
A Tasting that Feels Like an Indulging
As our tour comes to an end, Anna leaves us in the estate’s garden where a table with wine glasses radiates in the late morning light. We sit down and enjoy the sun dancing through the trees and bouncing off vibrant flowers. In no time we are greeted by Karoline Walch, one of Elena’s two daughters actively working in the family business. Karoline and her sister, Julia, are poised to follow in their mother’s footsteps and one day lead the estate.
Karoline enthusiastically joins us at the tasting table. Her charming and passionate nature is immediately evident as she takes us on a journey through an array of her family’s award-winning wines. We begin with the single vineyard Pinot Bianco “Kristallberg”, the grapes of which are grown at a height of 600 meters (nearly 2,000 feet). The vineyard’s dramatic temperature swings between night and day give the Pinot Bianco “Kristallberg” a bright crispness, mineral tones and a bouquet flush with green apple and white peach. After a couple of sips I find myself indulging more than tasting. The wine sings with summer elegance and I make a mental note to serve this splendor at my sister’s baby shower in August.
After we finish sampling the Pinot Bianco we move on to the only Vigna-certified Pinot Grigio in Italy. Karoline shares that after five years a vineyard may apply for Vigna certification, which certifies the wine is born from a single, geographically-defined vineyard. Producing a wine in this manner ensures the heart and soul of the land is personified in each bottle — a guiding philosophy of the Elena Walch estate.
Pinot Grigio is my personal vice, so I am especially excited to try Elena Walch’s Pinot Grigio “Vigna Castel Ringberg”. Its rich fullness and fruity aroma immediately impresses as I sip. Now, I have two Elena Walch wines I must serve at my sister’s shower. Naturally, I want more, but we continue with the Sauvignon “Vigna Castel Ringberg”. This wine equally pleases — perfectly balancing its Alpine heart with its French roots. My wine list for the shower grows by one more.
Next, we try Elena Walch’s Gewurztraminer “Vigna Kastelaz”, the most popular and award-winning wine in her portfolio. Translated, Gewurztraminer means “Spices of Tramin”, which is quite fitting as this northern Italian treasure pairs best with spicy Asian cuisine, seafood, cheeses and dessert. One sip of Elena Walch’s Gewurtztraminer and it’s clear this is a wine that demands to be noticed. It is immensely lush and intensely complex. A delight for both the nose and mouth. Vin says this is his personal favorite.
Elena Walch’s Kastelaz Vineyard – The only vineyard of its kind in South Tyrol
What makes Elena Walch’s Gewurztraminer especially unique is where the grapes are grown. All vineyards in Alto Adige face to the East or West, but Elena Walch’s Kastelaz vineyard is an exception. It is the only south-facing vineyard in Alto Adige. Here, the vines thrive on a steep 63-degree slope and enjoy cool Mediterranean winds from Italy’s Lake Garda.
While Alto Adige is best known for world-class white wines, the red wines from Elena Walch should be on your radar. The last two wines we sample are the Pinot Nero “Ludwig” and the Lagrein Riserva “Castel Ringberg”.
Recently named the second best Pinot Noir in all of Italy, the Elena Walch Pinot Nero “Ludwig” is enticingly ruby red in color and delicately juicy. The finish is smooth with a slight tanginess. Definitely a wine I want to explore further.
Like the Pinot Grigio we tasted, the grapes for Elena Walch’s Lagrein Riserva come from the winery’s Castel Ringberg vineyard. Set on a hill off of the South Tyrolean Wine Road, the Castel Ringberg vineyard overlooks the sky blue waters of Lake Caldaro. A castle built in 1620 rises from the surrounding vines.
We admit to Karoline the Lagrein grape is a bit of a mystery. She informs us it is a sun-loving grape native to Alto Adige and is a cross between Syrah and Pinot Noir. In our wine glasses, the Lagrein Riserva showcases a deep red color. Its nose recalls an Alpine berry jam we enjoyed at breakfast earlier. The wine itself is robust with touches of spice and fruit and has a pleasantly long finish. Karoline points out that it pairs well with venison and other meats. Vin comments he can’t wait to try it with the wild game in our freezer back home. That is a nice thought for him, but I am busy thinking about how we can stay longer at this heavenly place.
We conclude our tasting with Karoline, but before leaving the garden we enjoy more Lagrein and a savory plate of local specialty cheeses and cold cuts from La Verre Capricieux — a stylish bistro on the property.
Get to Know Elena Walch Wines First Hand
Our time at the Elena Walch estate was a truly inspiring way to spend a morning in Alto Adige. Elena Walch’s impeccable wines are not to miss. And touring the estate is a must when visiting this part of Italy. Like us, you’ll come away with a deep appreciation for the eloquent vision and devotion to quality Elena Walch, her daughters and the estate’s staff bring to every bottle they produce.
You can learn more about these amazing Alto Adige wines and available tours by visiting the Elena Walch website. Be sure to ask for Elena Walch the next time you are at your local wine shop.
And if you don’t know South Tyrol, Italy, do your wanderlust heart a favor and discover why it needs to be at the top of your tra