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Plavac Mali Is The Essence Of Dalmatia

Written on 20-07-2015 by Dusan Jelic, Hvar, Dalmatia, Croatia

Jo Ahearne MW and Andro Tomić during the harvest time on Hvar island, Dalmatia

An Interview with Ms. Joanne Jo Ahearne MW


What is your first 'aha moment' in wine?

Growing up in London wine wasn't really part of my life. I come from a working class family where we're well off because we had wine at Christmas.


As I got older we had more wine at diner and I realised I liked some and not others. Then one holiday my dad and uncle ordered a half bottle of Pommard to share - a glass each. They didn't get much to drink because all the cousins insisted on tasting it as well. That was my first 'serious' wine. I'd love to tell you who the producer was and from what vintage but I can't remember. But I do remember thinking that this tasted like nothing else I'd ever tasted before and being so excited about the flavours.


Why and how you manage to become a Master of Wine?

The why is simple - because it's really hard to get! How was a combination of hard work and more hard work...


What is your winemaking philosophy?

Get the best grapes, picked at the right time and don't extract more than they can give and don't hide them behind too much oak. Balanced  extraction is the key to both red and white for me.


What is your definition of success?

Interesting question. When the bank manager is getting nervous about my bank balance then income exceeding expenditure is always a good one...

But personally doing something well. Exceeding in doing something well. I'd be lying if recognition of others didn't help. I developed a Provence rose with one of my clients in in 2013. I set their style, do their blends and find wineries to source their wine. The first one got 90 Parker points and the 2014 just got 91. I was very happy with that.


Favorite red and white varieties in the Balkans or elsewhere and why?

Well I really have to say Plavac Mali don't I? But it is a bit like having to say your favourite song. It depends on the occasion and the mood. I love all varieties if they're made into interesting wine. Is that a cop out?


How you fell in love with Hvar island and Dalmatia?

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.


Plavac Mali. How do you feel about this variety? How do you cooperate with Mr. Tomić from Hvar island?

I think Plavac Mali is a fascinating grape. Not only is it steeped in history and almost the essence of Dalmatia but you have the ability to make wines that taste like Nebbiolo AND Amarone from the same grape and the same region. I know I'm repeating myself!

I'd met the family Tomic at the Dalmatia Wine Expo festival in Split 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. The help and support the whole family and all their staff have given me is beyond comparison. I could never have started to make wine without that space and the introductions to growers. Once I was introduced spending time tasting in the vineyard allowed me to pick the fruit with the most concentration and potential for my fledgeling label.


When we may taste your first Plavac Mali wines? What are the short-term plans for your current vinous Dalmatian adventure?

Well they are still maturing as we speak. I'll keep tasting and see when it's right to release. The next vintage looks like it's going to be more like a 'normal' Dalmatian vintage so I'm excited about seeing how the grapes respond. I have rented a space on the south side of the island to be near the grapes. I'm also doing some rose this year.


What are the best short-term method(s) to promote Croatian and Balkan wines nowadays on the key European/global markets?

I think the concept of 'short term' and wine together could be misleading. Getting more people to know the area, all the complex wine styles and the often quite challenging pronunciations is never going to be easy or quick. But I do think there is much more interest in 'unknown' indigenous grape varieties and lesser explored regions else I would never have decided to make wine here. Holding trade tastings really does help the buyers and journalists explore the regions without the time it takes to travel. Sounds unromantic but it's true. If you invite someone over and they have maybe 3 places on the shelf for the Balkans are they really going to do a 3 week exploratory trip to the Balkans? And that would be a pretty sparse overview. However, often at these things people get disheartened because they see nothing happening. A buyer may not have space for say another 18 months for something so new. And they can't list everyone. Exposure and education. Journalist trips are another thing as they are always looking for new places to write about BUT they are really busy so this will take a while also.


Please name a few very good and interesting wines you have tasted recently?

I've just come back from Portugal and it was 37 degrees with tonnes of lovely fish so Vinho Verde was in order. The local restaurants had a great value, zesty and concentrated Muralhas de Monção from Adegas de Monção made from Alvarinho and Trajadura. A great wine from a great co-operative. And a more refined, complex one I picked up at the airport from Anselmo Mendes made from Alvarinho (ran out of time to find a proper wine shop I'm ashamed to say). Both came from Monção and Melgaço region. It's the perfect summer wine - 11-12% alcohol, fresh, citrusy and with the added excitement of never knowing if it's going to have that 'fizz' of traditional Vinho Verde or not. Weirdly Vinho Verde was one of my 'Ah Ah' moments too. Before I got into wine I was in Portugal and tasted sardines cooked over charcoal served with really traditional Vinho Verde - quite verde if you get my drift... But as a food and wine combination it was brilliant. Big waves crashing in from the Atlantic and a bunch of mates. It's like it was yesterday.


What are the greatest challenges you face as a winemaker and how you go about to overcome them?

Last year it was the rain! I overcame it by throwing a lot of grapes away... and spending hours sifting through each ferment by hand to extract the green berries and stalks.

Mostly the challenge is the weather and getting all the grapes in when that particular parcel is at it's physiological peak. I spend a long time tasting grapes in the vineyard to assess flavour and tannin ripeness.


You are present for quite some time in the Balkan region and have a proper understanding of the main developments in the local wine industries. How do you see the immediate future of the region, and what would you do/suggest/propose to market this region more vigorously?

As I said above we are currently seeing a surge in interest in diversity so we need to grab that with both hands. Wine heritage is an interesting angle. Winemaking has been going on for millennia here. One thing I have noticed is that maybe the area does not make the most of the potential of its tourists. Often in restaurants when you ask for the 'wine list' you get the answer 'red or white' and a home made wine is plonked on the table. Sometimes it's good but more often it's oxidised, volatile or worse. I understand the economics of it - you grow grapes and make it in the garage and sell it to customers so you get more money than selling bottled wine. But the outcome is all the tourists then think that is what is representative of the wine of the region and so would never dream of buying it back home or asking their wine merchant why they don't sell these wines. It's a vicious cycle. When I first visited Croatia in 2003 after the first two meals I mostly just drank beer...

In fairness I think I am beginning to understand a tiny percentage of the Balkans - it's such a complex and diverse area.