Karoline Walch’s grandmother noticed it first. Sitting around the family’s vacation house in the Dolomites, sipping the wines they’d made for generations, she was struck by how different they tasted from the wines stored back at the winery. The house in the mountains sits at some 6,500 feet in elevation. The wines stored there seemed to age more deliberately, showing youth and vibrancy compared to the exact same bottles stored in the winery’s cellar, at roughly 900 feet above sea level. The difference was so glaring that the Walches decided to conduct a little experiment.
“We were convinced that wine matures differently at higher elevation. We had the proof already,” says Karoline Walch, whose mother is Elena of Elena Walch Family Estates in Alto Adige, in northern Italy. “We decided to do it [intentionally]. The tricky part was finding a place with the right elevation and conditions. We visited several locations and ended up choosing an abandoned silver mine. It had the highest elevation, and it’s three kilometers deep — nearly two miles — in the mountain, so the conditions are pretty consistent.”
The Schneeberg silver mine had been out of commission since 1985. In its heyday, it was lauded. As early as 1237, it was declared the best mine in Europe, and at 6,500 feet above sea level, it still holds the record as the highest on the continent. Inside, it’s pitch black — Walch describes darkness as “a wine’s best friend” — with a constant temperature of 45 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity that clocks in at around 95 percent. The Walches also believe the decreased air pressure in the mine contributes to slowed aging. They began storing wine there in 2011 and released the first results of the experiment in select European markets this summer. The wines should arrive in the United States in January.
“What’s amazing is the silver mine wines seem to absorb their surroundings. You can taste the coldness, the stone.”
“It’s something completely new that, as far we know, we’re the first to try,” says Walch. “It’s always fun going to the mine to check on the wines. We only have access to it for about four months out of the year. The rest of the time it’s covered in snow. It’s actually quite emotional when we go because we haven’t seen the bottles in a year.”
Aging wine in a mine might seem a little gimmicky. After all, there are now wines aged underwater and whiskey aged in outer space. But for Walch, the experiment was important. At the very least, it proves just how much the way a wine is stored really matters.
To get the wines in the mine, they must first be driven up the mountain, a more than two-hour ride from the winery, then loaded into a little cart that runs on railroad tracks into the mountain face. From there, it’s a 30-minute ride to the gallery deep in the mine that the Walches rent. With absolutely no light to work by, the winery staff has to wear headlamps and use flashlights to work, which makes them look a little like actual miners. They started with 1,200 bottles and now have 7,000 stored in the mine. The new release includes the estate’s award-winning Gewürztraminer Kastelaz 2011 and the Chardonnay-based blend Beyond the Clouds 2011. The Walchs hope to keep storing their most precious bottles in the mine and to release different ones each year.
“We’ll keep it a secret so it should be a nice surprise every year. The longer the wines are in there, the bigger the difference should be,” she says. “What’s amazing is the silver mine wines seem to absorb their surroundings. You can taste the coldness, the stone. They taste younger, but somehow more complex. They’re just alive, with a vibrant soul.”