Wine cellar’s ID
How did Ernest Tolj suddenly appear in the world of wines? Lots of people wonder, lots of people ask him. As a young and highly successful entrepreneur he determined on a very radical ploy. Getting out of and retiring from a demanding and stressful corporate job, he asked himself: what now? He was bored, he says, and he decided to buy a vineyard, plant the first, the second... And so it started. He’s always had a love of wine and an interest in wine. He and his wife Ivana, who is with him every step of his wine way, are both lovers of the noble fluid, and there was also a family tradition of making wine for home consumption. Step by step, vineyard after vineyard, with a very clear objective and vision. To produce the very best and bestow on the Croatian wine scene a great wine from the Plavac Mali of Pelješac and Dingač. But the story is not yet over.
Vineyards and varieties
Their children are named after the saints, and the vineyards, St Lucy, St Roch and St Anthony (actually, Lucia, Roko and Ante) are named after them. It started with the first 14 hectares of Plavac Mali vineyard at Komarna (St Roch), and went on across the sea on Pelješac (St Lucy) with another 8 ha, of which 4 ha are currently bearing grapes. Then they headed north, to Istria and Radovani. Bought land intending to plant olives, but at the advice of people in the know, planted 14 ha of vineyard instead (St Anthon – Malvazija and Chardonnay). Thus they had joined two ends of Croatia. Holy mountains, sea and land, white Istria and red Dalmatia. In viticulture, they play and experiment. In Dingac they are having a go at cultivating on the stake, because they found that once long ago this was how it was done and believe that this kind of cultivation produces good effects. The cultivation is 100% by hand here, while in the Komarna and Radovani vineyards they do use machinery. Ernest believes that all the attention, the devotion and precision in viticulture is best felt when their wine gets into the bottle and then the glass.
Cellar, technology and wines
The idea is to build in each vineyard a little boutique winery with a capacity of some 30k to 40k bottles, and until then to bring the grapes in refrigerated trucks down to a temporary cellar in Dicmo near Split for processing. The grapes are picked and put into 10 kg crates, and the bunches are carefully checked so that only the completely sound grapes go off for processing. Although it is a kind of throwback to old and somewhat forgotten technologies, the processing is innovative in many things. It’s full of apparently trivial details that impact the quality. Most of the Plavac grapes are fermented in barriques, but also in concrete tanks that are sent back to Dalmatia. In this case, those with a cement glaze. For processing white grapes they use what is called concrete eggs and believe that Malvazija vinified and aged in them gives very different and much better results. Malvazija goes in a coupage with a certain percentage of Chardonnay, which gives additional structure. Wood takes away more from Malvazija than it gives, and so we don’t use it, remarks Ernest. Stainless is hardly used at all, save for rosé. The annual production is about 16,000 bottles, and the whole process, from vineyard to final product, unfolds under the conductor’s baton of the great Michel Rolland. This collaborative venture came into being quite spontaneously. I wrote him a letter that piqued his curiosity. Pretty soon he was in Dingač, was delighted with the beauty and uniqueness of the position, and we started working together.
Wine is one big story, and the only truth lies in the glass. We can be ecologists, biodynamicists, natural scientists, chemists, the smartest and the best. We can have the best vineyards, the cleanest cellars and the most up to date technology, but at the end, it is all seen, smelt and tasted in the glass. I want to get the best out of Plavac, and to offer the best of it, and the best of Malvazija. The best and the most worthwhile. Something into which a lot of effort and work and knowledge has been put and something that just for this reason won’t be at all cheap. To get the maximum out of Plavac at Dingac, that costs, a lot. I don’t like chemistry, and I try to produce wine in the most natural manner possible, but we don’t use this for our sales drive. Those who taste and drink our wines recognise the quality. I think we’re making progress with each vintage, and this makes me happy.
In Saints Hills there are 26 people employed, and another 20 or 30 more in the season. Ernest and Ivana together take part in all phases of planning, decision making, marketing and promotion, and they are always around in the cellar during processing. The Marić and Ivetac families look after the vineyards, and young oenologist Andro Jeličić runs the cellar part, and has the luck to be able to learn from the best. Ernest says of Michel that he is a walking encyclopaedia, and that there is a lot to be learned by listening to him. He has saved a lot of money that we were ready to invest in what he thinks is unnecessary equipment. We cultivate our relationship, which is part business, part friendship, to mutual satisfaction.
Building up the winery in Istria, finishing that on Pelješac. Soon, for the first time, the line from the St Roch winery in Komarna is going to go out onto the market, and this will be much more accessible price-wise than the Dingač wines. In the next few years we’re going to put on the market our top line of Malvazija and Plavac. These will be in very small quantities, the wine will be sold at various auctions and dinners, for charity. We want to go on developing the recognition factor of our brand. To experiment, keep on finding out the right way to the best. Market? From the first vintage, 70% of our wines went for export, and it seems that this year there will be over 80%. Yes, we want to produce and export top quality Croatian wines. In a short time we have shown it can be done. A little winery with big dreams. Three vineyards on their journey together in search of perfection on the vine, perfection in the wine. We wish them safe journey and calm seas.