Before she became the first woman in South Tyrol to start producing wine independently in 1985, Elena Walch was an architect. That she came at the process from a different angle and with an outsider’s perspective aided her in separating herself from the South Tyrolean wine scene at that time. Walch took many bold steps: the separate vinification of the grapes from her Castel Ringberg and Kastelaz vineyards into "terroir wines," the elimination of the classic Vernatsch grapevines in favour of other, more modern grape varieties, the conscious decision to lower yields in favour of better quality.
Many winegrowing colleagues initially shook their heads in disbelief and yet it soon became clear that Elena's decisions bore fruit. These days, Elena Walch's winery has long since taken its place amongst the elite of the Italian wine scene and Elena's daughters Julia and Karoline have now been working in their mother's winegrowing estate since 2013. What was it like for Elena Walch to be the only woman in a man's domain 30 years ago, and what are her daughters up to these days? The answers waited at the Ringberg Castle in Caldaro/Kaltern.
Mrs Walch, when you started your winegrowing estate as a career change, you also shook up many things that had been tradition for generations. Can you tell us about the early days?
Elena: At the beginning it was a bit of a struggle, but I tried to follow my gut and find my own way. My daughters are much better off today because they have a background in wines. As an architect, I approached the world around me from a logical perspective and of course I also had the support of my husband, who had been working in the wine business for many generations. But yes, I set the guidelines and I was wilful and stubborn.
Karoline: Above all, as an outsider you brought new ideas to the company, such as the concept of ‘terroir’ wines. It also has to be said that your ideas about doing something different in the vineyard, emphasising the origin, the individual sites, this made you a pioneering figure in South Tyrol.
Elena: It’s a shame not to know where the wine comes from! I then had to convince my husband to invest heavily. I said: Look, we have these beautiful vineyards, but they are not amongst top range. Let me look after them and I will pour in my energy! Perhaps it was also a stroke of luck that I had an outsider’s perspective. Taking care of a winegrowing estate with a castle in the middle was something entirely new, like out of a fairytale. I had the feeling: You have to make it happen with your own two hands! In former times, grapes were processed from a single production site. And yet I was determined that the grapes from Ringberg Castle (Schloss Ringberg) should be processed separately and that those from Kastelaz should have their own identity.
Where does the wine come from?
Would you agree that origin is becoming increasingly important for wine consumers?
Karoline: Yes, that's true. As a family winery, this has been an important credo for us right from the start. To prove that these are really exclusive single-vineyard wines, we have two "Vignas" (a classification to guarantee origin), Castel Ringberg and Kastelaz.
Julia: Today, wine connoisseurs want to know where the wine comes from, especially when you talk about high-quality wines. This is where the concept of dedicated individual vineyards comes into play: E.g., this is my best vineyard with which I produce my best wine. There are only a certain number of bottles, because the vineyard’s yield is of course limited. The concept of registering "Vignas" has spread rapidly in South Tyrol in recent years.
Karoline: South Tyrol, better known to wine connoisseurs by its Italian name, Alto Adige, is becoming increasingly familiar to people as a wine-growing region. We are currently the most sought-after region in Italy, especially when it comes to white wines. One must not forget, however, that as a wine region we are one of Italy’s smallest: We have less than one percent of the total Italian wine production, which is practically nothing! I should add that I allow myself a certain sense of pride when I meet a sommelier in Texas, who is a fan of South Tyrolean wine.
Big shoes to fill
Over the years, your mother has worked her way to international success. Karoline and Julia: Does this put you under pressure?
Julia: No, not at all. I think our mother taught us everything we need to know.
Elena: Oh, I'm so glad to hear that! (laughs)
Julia: I think we’ve learned how to be assertive and to follow our instincts. In Germany, for example, I still hear from restaurateurs: ‘Yes, Mrs Walch was here 25 years ago, I remember well.’ It’s crazy but true: our mother was one of the first to go to the restaurants in person.
Karoline: People remember her, for better or for worse, because she was persistent. She even got on some people's nerves....
Elena (laughs): I just refused to leave before they enjoyed a taste with me. It was important for me to know: How does my product measure up?
Karoline: And I think people were perplexed at the time that a woman was stubbornly going door to door in a man’s world.
Elena Walch: the femminine side of South Tyrol's Wine
As we’re already on the subject: You were South Tyrol's first female winemaker and one of the few women in the wine sector. What was this like for you?
Elena: At first I experienced a lot of scepticism and was often asked: Where is your husband? Then I said: I have my own wines and I am here to represent them. In the end, I saw it as a challenge and I also liked being the only woman in a man’s world. After the initial scepticism I was very well accepted. The topic of women should no longer be put in the foreground at all: I am of the opinion that quality is what counts at the end of the day. Whether the wine comes from a woman or a man is irrelevant. In any event, I have an oenologist who makes the wine. I, or rather the girls these days, tell him what we to emphasise in the wine or what feeling we’d like to impart with the taste. He then tries to interpret this. Perhaps it has helped in marketing to be a woman, because we women communicate more emotionally, whereas men are much more technical. After all, wine in particular is a product that has a lot to do with feeling and enjoyment.
Why what's on the surface doesn't tell the whole story
Julia and Karoline: What changes have there been since you joined the winegrowing estate?
Karoline: We’re like two birds having arrived at a nest that’s already been constructed. Yet on the other hand, we of course ask ourselves: What can be improved? I think there is always a lot to do, especially in the wine sector. As far as sustainable work in the vineyard is concerned, we have to pay even closer attention to the soil where the roots lie. In our new fermentation cellar, we work with the principle of gravity and have a lot of small tanks for the various plot wines so we can react more flexibly to the vintage.
Julia: The wines are outstanding and yet they should also continue to improve. Meanwhile, we’re continuing to expand the vineyards upwards to an elevation of 1,000 m. It takes a lot of research, especially in regard to climate change: Separate vinification of plots allows us to see how the vineyard develops over time, to anticipate where we want to go and what we have to change.
Elena, it sounds as if your daughters have everything pretty well under control. How do you feel about seeing your daughters carry on with their own style?
Elena: I have to say, both girls possess great calm and balance – Whereas I was always the nervous type.
Karoline: I think the work today is different than it was for mum, because she had to build it from scratch. We have to successfully continue what she built, while applying our own personal style.
Elena: We produce for wine lovers everywhere who are looking for something special and that was my goal from the beginning. Now I see that the winery doesn't need me anymore, which allows me to look back with pride and joy. Nothing more fortuitous can happen to a business than to have the next generation readily involved with interest and passion. I have to say: The girls are doing really well.
Interview: Marlene Lobis & Elisabeth Stampfer
Translation into English: Covi, Wurzer & Partner
Photos: Ivo Corrà
Video: Ebner Film
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