There are just over 300 Masters of Wine in the world. Only one of them is currently making wine in Croatia. Jo Ahearne MW from London via Australia explains why she has taken the plunge to try and get the very best out of the grapes of Hvar.
People’s first response when I tell them I make wine in Croatia is ‘Why Croatia?’
Often I click into my photo collection and show them this picture of the vineyard where some of my grapes are grown.
Or maybe to the one with the backdrop of the majestic karst mountain.
Hvar is certainly a beautiful place so it explains my decision to an extent but there are so many beautiful places in the world. So indeed, why here?
I’ve worked all around the world – most of France, Italy, Spain, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia. I’ve worked in boutique wineries of 100 tonnes and large wineries of over 20,000 but I always knew I wanted to make my own wine. It was just a matter of where. After 10 years in Australia which I adore, I wanted to come back to Europe to be closer to my family. Being English, I have no natural ‘home’ of wine (UK Winemakers please forgive me for that). So I bided my time until I fell in love.
I work with Stobi Winery in Macedonia and through them I was invited to the Split Expo for Dalmatian wines and afterwards added on some winery visits where I saw what diverse wines were being made from Plavic Mali.
The ridiculous beauty of the country and the aromas of wild herbs in the vineyards made a mark on me. To be able to make a wine with the floral aromatics and tannic tension of a Barolo and the richness and intensity of an Amarone from the same grape variety in the same region bowled me over.
And that, as they say, was that.
I was aware that the country had seduced me with its beauty so I put my logical hat on for a while sense checking the commercial potential. Maybe 5 years ago I wouldn’t have taken the plunge. But with an ever-increasing international thirst for less-known indigenous grape varieties and regions along with the interest and pride in Croatian wines within Croatia and the surrounding countries it all made sense.
So the search for the spot to make my first vintage was on. Many people in the UK assumed I would head for Istria as the region is more well known internationally. But I’d fallen in love with Dalmatia and those big, bold reds.
I’d met the family Tomic from Hvar at the Expo and had discussed looking to buy fruit and a place where I could rent a corner of a winery to ‘test the water’ and they offered me such a corner. I didn’t know if I’d find any fruit to buy but I came over and bought some barrels and a mini must chiller (for that famously hot Dalmatian weather) and hoped.
All I knew was that there are three sites in Croatia that are considered ‘Grand Cru’ and the south side of Hvar island is one of them. I wanted the best possible fruit I could find so I concentrated on that area. And find it I did with the family Kolumbic in the village of Sveta Nedjelja.
I really can’t explain the help and encouragement I’ve received from both Andro and Sebastian Tomic in Hvar and Janica Tomic’s input from Zagreb. The kindness of the Kolumbic family has been overwhelming as well as a host of others who have done nothing but point me in the right direction to find things and people that I need to make a success of the project.
My mini must chiller didn’t see much action last year as it was quite cool but the weather seems back on track this year so it may well get an airing this year. West Ham, my team from back home, recently appointed Slaven Bilic as their manager so my life is full of Croats at the moment (and Dalmatians at that). I’m hoping his coming season with the Hammers will be as successful the coming season in the vineyards promised to be.