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15 Questions [3]: Ernest Tolj And His Wines With Soul - When The Saints Go Marching In! (Saints Hills, Croatia)

Written on 15-02-2013 by Dusan Jelic, Belgrade

Ivana and Ernest Tolj - a power behind Saints Hills Winery in Croatia

Saints Hills winery on the Croatian Pelješac Peninsula is still not completed and wine is not yet available on the spot and organized visits shall start soon. Pretty soon Dalmatian wine tourism and especially Pelješac Wine Route will get another precious stone in her shiny Mediterranean crown. We are eager to decipher a wine philosophy of this brilliant wine producer from Croatia to the regional wine public at large as well as to the wine lovers from all four corners of the world.


This is how Ivana and Ernest Tolj presented their winery:

Saints Hills winery is primarily a labour of passion and love of two people dedicated to wine, life, art and to one another. We make wine out of curiosity, challenge and, of course, love. Only the best is good enough. We learn along the way, and we learn throughout our lives, yet we make an effort to present that ‘truth in wine’ as us. We are immensely lucky to learn from our close friend and a true wine artist and connoisseur Monsieur Michel Rolland, who not only helped us make truly superb wines, than also introduced us to many various wine philosophies. For that, we are eternally grateful to him.

Our vineyards are located on three different spots: in Istria, in a village called Radovani nearby Višnjan on red rocky soils; in Dalmatia, in Komarna next to Klek, where soils contain more than 80% of calcium and on Pelješac Peninsula at the very Dingač position, where in addition to red soils we have found significant deposits of quartz. All three vineyards are located on hills, therefore we simply named them ‘Saints Hills’ (or ‘Brda Svetaca’ in Croatian), as we named them after our children: St. Roko - Komarna, St. Lucia - Dingač and St. Ante - Radovani. We dedicated our olive groove in Istria to our little girl Lorena.

Our wines are exclusively natural, produced on their own yeast and unfiltered. Grapes are hand selected on two sorting tables and each berry passes through our hands before ending up as wine. Our entire team is composed from people who are our close friends, they share same beliefs like us and we make wine guided by the same philosophy. We call it a big Saints Hills family.


15 Questions: Ernest Tolj - Saints Hills winery, Croatia

Q1. What is your winemaking philosophy?

ET: We at Saints Hills are focused towards production of wines that mirror in the best manner terroir of Istria and Dalmatia by cultivating indigenous varieties and using modern winemaking techniques. We are keen to offer to local and international markets the best from the soils we have at our disposal.

Q2. Do you have favourite varieties, wineries or wine regions in Croatia, our region or elsewhere?

ET: My favourite cultivars are Malvasia Istriana and Plavac mali, namely varieties we nurture in our cellars and make wine from. These wines are made honestly and they are a true product from the soils where we were born.

Q3. Can you mention a few very good and interesting wines you have tasted recently?

ET: It is a difficult task to point out wines I like more or less, but let me state that I am very pleased with the latest vintages of wines made by my colleagues who recently created a new group of wine producers named Grand Cro Association.

Q4. What is your assessment of a quality of wines from Pelješac in the contect of Croatia and the region?

ET: Quality is improving both in vineyards and cellars virtually on a daily basis, which, I presume, is one of the essential and defining moments of development of Dalmatian wines and specifically of Plavac mali, as a very special variety. Vignerons started cultivating some other indigenous varieties, such as Crljenak Kaštelanski (a.k.a. Zinfandel and Primitivo), which is also an important step in a further promotion of Croatia as a country with wine tradition. Generally speaking, I feel that we mostly move forward and all the developments thereof point out to a greater global recognition of Pelješac Peninsula and Dalmatia.


Q5. What is your favourite wine from Pelješac and what is your favourite food? Why? And from Istria?

ET: Saints Hills Dingač and Saints Hills Nevina. I mostly enjoy my wife Ivana’s cuisine, as she is indeed and extraordinary chef. That is a reason why her recipes shall be an essential part of the menu in our new winery on Pelješac Peninsula.


Q6. What are your greatest challenges as a winemaker and viticulturist?

ET: The biggest challenge is to get the very best from the Istrian and Dalmatian soils, and to offer wine which will truly communicate this gentle cross-pollination of wind, soil and sunshine, signifying the land where I was born and grew up. You know, it is not easy to converse emotions that shaped my soul, all the way through my life, to others. And that’s exactly what we are trying to achieve here at the Saints Hills!


Q7. Your ideas in wine marketing are interesting and unique. How would you promote a wine scene of Dalmatia and Pelješac? And Istrian wine scene?

ET: Have a look at the Adriatic coast. Bring your guests here and that would be the best start of the promotion of Dalmatia and Istria. At the end of a day, that’s exactly what we did with our consultant, a world-renown oenologist Michel Rolland, who concluded that this terroir has all it takes to produce a truly big wine. That’s how our story originally developed, and we are ready to spread and share the story of Saints Hills to anyone open to new and different wines.  


Q8. What labels are produced at Saints Hills winery and do you plan any new wines in the near future?

ET: Saints Hills produces 4 labels at the moment. Our white blend from the vineyard in Radovani called Nevina is a blend of indigenous Malvasia Istriana and Chardonnay. Further south in Komarna vineyards we cultivate Plavac mali for our Sv. Roko label, while the prime location on the Dingač slope we use for rose St. Heels and Dingač. New labels are in a final stage of realisation and will see the light in 2013!


Q9. How you define wine tourism and whether Pelješac and Dalmatia use their potential sufficiently. What should be done in a short-term to develop wine tourism as much as possible?

ET: Potential is enormous and yet the realization is still limited. Have a look at the coast and islands on one hand and mainland and nautical tourism on the other hand. We truly have all pre-conditions to create the best possible conditions for any visitor to Croatia. Wine tourism shall become one of the pillars of the entire tourism industry in Croatia. I think that by doing so we can offer amazing experience to our guests that is very rarely available elsewhere. I firmly believe that this year we should make a significant step forward as the wine tourism is intensively discussed at various levels of society. 


Q10. What are the most important tasks of the Grand Cro Winemakers Association of 9 Croatian wineries in terms of further support of the wineries?

ET: A goal of Grand Cro Association is, of course, to position all members both at the local and international level and to intensify further promotion and wine sales. Members of Grand Cro are nine respected wineries from Croatia:  Baković, Bibich, Boškinac, Bolfan Vinski Vrh, Duboković, Meneghetti, Roxanich, Korta Katarina and Saints Hills. I think we are a very good ’national team’ when playing both home and away. We demonstrated our joint power during the 7th Vinocom Festival in Esplanade hotel in Zagreb last year, and we open a new year with the international exhibitions where we plan to offer our very best wines. 


Q11. What food is an ideal match to Plavac mali, Pošip or Prošek? And to Teran, Malvasia and Refosco?

ET: Plavac mali, the way we see it, goes very well with ‘pašticada’ (a stewed beef dish cooked in special sauce), red meat and chocolate. Malvasia Istriana, on the other hand, goes well with pastas, risottos and white fish. 


Q12. What is your definition of success?

ET: It’s when you go to bed peacefully at the end of a working day. 


Q13. What do you think are the best methods of promoting local wines in Croatia, our region or elsewhere?

ET:  Croatia is still relatively unknown in the world as the wine country. We have to present ourselves as a place with rich tradition and plenty of indigenous grape variety not available elsewhere able to produce extraordinary wines!


Q14. What do you think about wine closures? What is your preference? Why?

ET: People use what is the most acceptable for them!


Q15. What is wine for you?

ET: A product of nature which has to reflect in the best way the terroir it is originating from.


The original (Croatian) version of this article and a few nice images depicting Saints Hills winery, Ivana and Ernest Tolj and their friend Michel Rolland could be found here at our facebook page: 


Wines of Balkans