On the 25th October 2017, we attended a wine tasting at Wine and Cheese Bar Paradox with Jo Ahearne, the only Master of Wine to make wine in Croatia.
Wine and Cheese Bar Paradox is an iconic wine bar in Split, originally Paradigma Restaurant, this year saw it renovated and rebranded into the gorgeous wine bar which will greet you today. As well as offering an impressive wine and cheese list, Paradox has an ever-changing line-up of local and international live music (something terribly lacking in Split) and every Wednesday is set aside for a wine tasting run by various winemakers.
This week, that honour was given to Jo Ahearne, a Londoner, Master of Wine, now living on the island of Hvar and making wine from indigenous grape varieties. Ahearne holds the prestigious title of Master of Wine since 2008; there are only 396 people who have the right to use the lauded letters M and W after their name and Ahearne is one of them (and one of 124 women I may add) to put it into perspective – there are more astronauts than Masters of Wine…
Walking into Paradox we were greeted by Jo Ahearne, owner Zoran and were very promptly handed a glass of prosecco by the friendly, efficient team – note to everybody, this is how I always want to be greeted.
Tables were all set with glasses, and the room quickly filled up, everyone eager to learn about and taste the wine, or simply enjoy a unique evening of culture in a beautiful setting.
Jo took to the floor after a brief introduction by Zoran and she set the tone for a very relaxed evening by explaining: “when I get excited, I tend to talk fast, so please feel free to shout out – slow down Jo!” Even though I have worked in restaurants for years and have now sailed the Dalmatian coast learning about local cuisine and wines, I still consider myself an amateur in wine, so this friendly intro from Jo made me instantly feel comfortable.
Jo’s wine career spans over 25 years, she has worked with iconic wineries as a consultant as well as in the wine trade which has allowed her to travel the world, gaining new experiences, knowledge and a host of awards to add to her name. At one-point, Jo was also the Head Buyer of Wine and Spirits for the luxury retailer Harrods of London.
So, how does a London Master of Wine, end up moving to the island of Hvar to make wine? Jo’s first introduction to Croatian wine was not the best representation unfortunately, her first travels through Croatia saw her eating at small family-run konobas (which we all love); however, as we all know – the wine served at konobas has typically been made by the Uncle or Dida and is, let’s say, lacking the refined qualities that a Master of Wine is looking for…
Thankfully, Jo was reintroduced to Croatian wine years later and in particular, fell in love with the Plavac Mali grape, before falling deeper in love with the island of Hvar itself. The Tomić family on Hvar were the first to help Jo by offering her space to begin her Croatian winemaking journey; Jo also went on to explain just how welcoming and accommodating locals have been to her in general – Zoran from Paradox was also one of her first ‘wine friends’ when she arrived.
Zoran Pejovic entertaining the crowd
The first wine we tried was her Rose – ‘Rosina’, named after her mother (and she is extremely grateful her mother’s name was not Gertrude)… Jo wanted to produce a serious rose, ‘gastronomic with structure and the ability to withstand some ageing.’ Her search for ‘spine, acidity and structure’ led her to the local grape variety Darnekuša which grows on the highest point of the island under the cross Sv. Nikola. Jo explained that she wanted to craft more sophisticated flavours of rhubarb, red cherries and raspberries rather than the cliché sweet, strawberry background. In the wine world, Rose is only now starting to be taken seriously, as too should Jo’s Rosina – a divine, well-rounded, sophisticated blend, perfect for hot summer afternoons.
The next in line to try was Pošip, a grape originally from Korčula which is now grown throughout Dalmatia. Now, Pošip is a grape that seems to either be done extremely well or not at all – unfortunately, falling in the latter for the most part. When I asked Jo about this, she said that Croatia is at risk of ‘killing the goose that laid the golden egg…’ Many winemakers are happy relying on the name Pošip, without taking care to craft the characteristics that it can hold. Jo explained that her ideal white is a Burgundy and this is what she has tried to model her Pošip against. Jo buys her grapes from just outside of Hvar town and even though Hvar is known as the sunniest island (with 2,718 sunshine hours per year), the vineyard’s exposure to a lovely sea breeze (note: not “wind” – it is less romantic) keeps temperatures cooler which allows the grapes to retain their acidity. The vineyard is picked in three stages (1.5 tonnes at a time), to ensure that all the flavours of the grape are allowed to come through.
My favourite quote of the night: “Making a good white wine should be like making a fruit salad, if your fruit salad is only made up of bananas it is going to be extremely boring.”
Her Pošip contains hints of citrus which move through to melon, peach, quince and finally to tropical guava and pineapple. And quite frankly, I haven’t enjoyed a Pošip or even white wine, quite so much as I enjoyed this, in a very long time.
Oh, and how did I forget to mention that the wines came accompanied with a gorgeous plate of cheese to compliment.
Moving on, we get to the third wine in the Ahearne series, her ‘Wild Skins’. In an attempt to highlight the local grape varieties, Jo has created a blend from Pošip, Bogdanuša and Kuć. Jo has named the blend ‘Wild Skins’ which gives her room to play around with different blends of grapes depending on her whim and imagination and she is clearly doing something right as her Wild Skins was recently awarded an impressive 92/100 in an event for ‘high-quality wines of unusual character and style’. The real standout feature of this ambitious wine by Ahearne is that historically, Bogdanuša and Kuć are known as cheap, table wine, so Jo has breathed new life into an old story and hopefully, more winemakers will follow suit.
The last (and definitely not least), wine of the evening was, of course, the grape that is possibly the reason Jo is even in Croatia – Plavac Mali. Jo uses grapes from around Sv. Nedjelja and Jagodna and the wine is matured in French barrels from the forest of Jupliles to encourage the ‘floral and herbal’ aspect of the grape rather than hiding it behind heavy oak – which Jo considers a sin. Jo pushes the skins into the juice of the Plavac by hand, describing how this quite literally lets her keep in touch with the whole fermentation process, the aromas, textures…
Tim Coulson, Barbara Hart and Paula Babić – Paradox’s most loyal patron, Paula has been attending the wine tastings since they first started 4 years ago!
This is what I enjoyed most about Jo’s presentation; as well as describing the winemaking process and taking us through the flavour profiles, I loved that Jo painted a picture. With her words, she transported us to the gorgeous island of Hvar and allowed us to truly feel the process, from farmers driving their tractors backwards down steep hills so the grapes don’t fall out, to the gentle sea breeze blowing across the grapes… Her warm, animated and sincere character made it hard not to fall in love with her wines, story and the winemaking journey.
Jo Ahearne with Hvar wine legend Andro Tomić
The ambiance of the entire evening was absolutely on-point; from the warm welcome by the Paradox team, Zoran’s lighthearted commentary throughout, a pianist softly setting the mood in between each description and Jo’s overall presentation.
Left to Right: Tanja Polegubić (Saltwater Work Space), Me, Daniela Rogulj (Split Editor), Jo Ahearne and Robyn Vulinovich (My Hidden Croatia)
Honestly, I can’t even tell you which wine I preferred more as I genuinely enjoyed them all. Generally, I am a red wine girl but Jo’s Pošip and Rose were also to my tastes and the Wild Skins was the real surprise of the night. As well as purchasing her wines for my own stores, I will definitely be adding an ‘Ahearne Vino Tasting’ to my sailing itineraries in the future.
A huge thank you to Jo and the Paradox team for an incredible evening. I am not sure if this is always the tone of the Wednesday Wine Nights but I have all intentions of returning to find out.