With more astronauts than Masters of Wine on the planet (the latter just 314), the decision of Jo Ahearne MW to move to the island of Hvar to make her own wine is the latest piece of good news for the Croatian wine story; Digital Journal met Ahearne on the pretty main square of Jelsa on October 22, 2014, to find out more.
Ahearne, whose distinguished 20-year career of wine-making, sales and consultancy has included stints as head of head of wine and spirits buying for Harrods of London, as well as seven years with Marks and Spencer as a winemaker, was first properly introduced to Croatian wines at Dalmacija Wine Expo in Split in April, where she first talked to Digital Journal
After investigating the potential of making wine on the island of Hvar in July, Ahearne moved to the wine town of Jelsa for the 2014 harvest, where she hooked up with renowned vintner Andro Tomic
1. A Master of Wine making wine on the island of Hvar in Croatia sounds like an intriguing story. How did it come about?
I have been looking for somewhere to do my own wine-making project alongside my wine-making consultancy. There are lots of beautiful places in the world to make wine and since I don't come from a vineyard/wine-making area (the East End of London isn't exactly viticulture-central) it was always a question of 'where to make my wine'. I have worked all over the world but when I came back from Australia in 2003, Croatia was the first place I came to - on holiday with a mate. And I was just blown away with the beauty of the place - but not the wine really. Then I came over to Dalmacija Wine Expo in April, and the wine scene was so buzzing. On the trip we went to several wineries that had planted vineyards and proudly told us that 'soon we won't have to take grapes from growers'. So the seed was planted in my brain that here was a country that had lots of old vines that soon would need a home. So why not me? I just had a feeling. As someone who can just about scrape together some money for a little stone house with a cellar for the winery, the thought of owning and working a vineyard is not feasible. Then I was introduced to some wines from Hvar and the seed grew a bit more. I needed somewhere to make wine that was open to outsiders and also had a mixed community where I could belong. There is more and more interest in the Balkans, Southern Mediterranean, Eastern Europe or whatever label you want to use for this region. There is a vibrant domestic market and an established regional market in the other former republics of Yugoslavia. Then I met the family Tomic who were so open to help me and that was the deal done really.
2. It is no secret that the 2014 vintage in Croatia has been extremely poor. How did you proceed with grape selection and purchase?
Lots of vineyard visits but to be honest even that didn't work. The rot spread so quickly that some vineyards that were fine one day, but then after yet more rain they were not so good. It has been tough.
3. You have taken temporary home in the winery of Andro Tomic. Tell us a little more about that experience.
It is so cool. Andro doesn't speak English and my Croatian is truly terrible (although I'm thinking Dalmatian maybe easier as it has a LOAD of Italian words in there...) so we communicate in French. His two children, Basti and Janica, speak fabulous English which means we have these three-way conversations. And they could not have been more helpful. It has been overwhelming - the kindness. And their team as well has been great to work with. They have found me space in the corner of the winery for my little open fermenters and handbag-sized cooling system. Talking to the whole family about the region and the variety and its foibles. Generous in every way.
4. The Hvar Wine Association has been very active in promoting the island's wines, and with considerable success, with new markets from California to China. How would you assess the Hvar wine scene, and what makes it exciting for you in particular?
I think I am only just beginning to understand any scene in Croatia but what attracted me was the sense of a group of winemakers trying to work together to promote the island. For an outsider an island is a defined area to get to grips with so maybe psychologically easier to get to know? In the UK more people know about Istria but I think it's time for the big reds to come to the fore.
5. You decided to start the Hvar wine project after only short contact with Croatia on previous visits. How would you assess your time on Hvar away from the winery? What has surprised you about Croatia?
To be honest there has not been much time away from the winery. Getting round and tasting fruit in vineyards, meeting new growers, sorting out equipment, hand-sorting green stalks from each ferment - it all takes time. But one thing that did surprise me was really how long it takes to get anything into the country.....