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Jo Ahearne MW: My Road to Plavac Mali

Written on 17-11-2016 by Jo Ahearne MW, London (UK), Hvar (Croatia)

A Plavac Mali vineyard on the steep southern slopes of Hvar island in Dalmatia, Croatia

I'd love to say that I'd long been enamoured with Plavac Mali and I'd always wanted to work with the grape variety but the truth is that I'd hardly ever tasted it before the Spring of 2014.


I first visited Croatia in the summer of 2003 when I returned to Europe after 10 years making wine in Australia.


I'd gone to Australia to get vintage experience and ended up selling my house to enable me to stay and study winemaking and eventually work for some amazing Australian wineries. To be honest I must have tasted Plavac Mali during that first visit to Croatia but most of the wine I tried in local restaurants was not that good and I ended up drinking beer a lot of the time.


I can remember finding a restaurant that had a proper wine list and, crucially, someone who could advise me about all these exotic, unknown and unpronounceable grape varieties. I had a bottle of a local wine 'made from a grape that was the same as Zinfandel' which was great. Obviously, I couldn't remember the words Crljenak Kaštelanski or Tribidrag but it did give me the feeling that there was some nice wine out there somewhere. But then the next restaurant had oxidised local wine (or worse) so it was back to beer.....


Fast track to April 2014. By that time I'd worked as a winemaker in Australia, France and Spain, become a Master of Wine and travelled the world blending wines for the high-end, UK supermarket Marks and Spencer and as head of buying at Harrods but I always planning to make my own wine somewhere. I got invited to the Dalmatian Wine Expo in Split and it was there that I started to appreciate Plavac Mali. The Expo was followed by a small tour of Dalmatian wineries and I got to talk to more winemakers and taste more wines.


I'd cut my winemaking teeth in the Barossa Valley in South Australia and then gone on to work in La Mancha, Navarra and Jumilla in Spain and Fitou in southern France. So voluptuous, generous reds were part of my adopted wine DNA. I say adopted since wine wasn't a big part of growing up in East London... But I'd spent seven years blending wines in Burgundy and Piedmont so fine grained tannins and perfumed aromatics were firmly intertwined with these robust reds.


So when I was faced with one variety in one region that could produce wines akin to both Amarone AND Barolo I was transfixed. The wines with less alcohol have this lifted perfume alongside the wild, herbal, 'garrigue' aromatic profile. Being less imbued with alcohol and sweetness also means that the exquisite, fine grained but aggressive tannins give an elegant structure to the wines. It's important to note that, just as with Nebbiolo, while Plavac Mali tannins are aggressive in nature when ripe they add an extra dimension of freshness rather than bitterness to the wine. It's not a negative descriptor at all.


On the opposite side of the scale there are these huge, opulent wines with richness and sweetness which mask the tannins somewhat and are full of raisin, chocolate and plum flavours alongside those garrigue aromatics. When I use the word huge this is in no sense pejorative. I think we need to be careful about the 'low alcohol is good' movement in the wine world. Some of the most stunning wines I've ever tasted had alcohols in the 16% range. It's all about balance and whether the alcohol is obtrusive. And sense of place. While a 16% Burgundian Pinot Noir is not such a good idea a 16% Dalmatian Plavac Mali can show class and elegance and belongs in the region.


Plavac Mali has quite uneven ripening just like its parent Zinfandel/Crljenak Kaštelanski/Tribidrag. The trick is to get it right in the vineyard and pick the grapes when the tannins are ripe. The level of raisined fruit you get is a matter of both the desired style of wine and the vineyard site. In some of the vineyards where I buy fruit I don't get much raisins at all while in others it could be as high as 40%.


However, I see so much variation in the vineyard with the ability of a vine to ripen those tannins. There are places even on the south side of Hvar where they just would never be able to ripen. This is a combination of excessive yield, clone, soil as well as the famous aspect. Like many more robust grape varieties Plavac Mali can also have quite low acidity and high pH. Again, attention in the vineyard is imperative. I buy grapes from some vineyards where the pH is fantastic and have rejected others only a few hundred meters away which has a pH of 3.8 when the potential alcohol hasn't even passed the 11% mark!


The other aspect not often talked about is the variation on both berry size and bunch shape for Plavac family. Obviously there is Plavac Mali and Veliki and then there's Plavac Mali Veliki and Veliki Mali etc etc etc... but in the end of the day it's all about ripeness of tannins, concentration of flavour and freshness. That's what I look for in the vineyard. I wouldn't buy fruit just because it had good pH. I taste the fruit in each vineyard, look at the ripeness of tannins and the concentration and then do analyses to double check the pH but nothing comes into the winery without tasting first in the vineyard.


It's all these levels of complexity in site and (possibly) clones that makes it such a fascinating variety and produces such diverse wines. Just as there is not one single type of Nebbiolo, Pinot Noir or Shiraz there isn't one type of Plavac Mali. Exploring those differences is what drew me to Hvar. Well, that and the fact that it's one of the most beautiful places on earth! I've isolated three single vineyard sites that give a specific personality. I've kept them separate for two years now and I'll see how they develop over time but the results seem very promising to me.


2016 is my third vintage on Hvar and I keep tasting notes on all the vineyards I work with, noting the flavours and tannin structure as well as picking dates and analyses. I vinify each one separately to assess its personality and blend to compliment and balance those personalities. So each year I add a new building block of understanding to the wines and each year I learn something new. In the wine trade there is only one thing that is certain - the day we die we will still have something new to learn about grapes, vineyards and wine!