The island of Hvar lies in central Dalmatia and is the fourth largest Croatian island standing at 68km long and just under 300 km2 with year-round population of only 11,000. Its highest point is Sveta Nikola at 628m. The two-hour ferry ride from the Dalmatian capital Split provides a lifeline to the mainland.
The climate here is tempered by the surrounding sea breezes – it is very warm in summer but rarely goes above 35°C. The autumn is warmer than the spring which extends the growing season. The winters are mild with an average of 8°C and adequate rainfall.
The island is a karst landscape which means the soil is underlaid by limestone which is relatively soluble. This dissolution of the rock creates underground crevasses and leads to very limited, if any, surface water despite the adequate rainfall. It is of utmost importance to conserve water and to protect the land from soil erosion. To this end, the island is littered with dry stone walls and terraces and many of the old vineyards have water cisterns.
The soil itself is varied like the topography. The south side of the island where the best Plavac Mali is grown has very steep slopes and white limestone rocky white soil interlaid with brown soil pockets. The soil is very poor which is needed to control the Plavac Mali variety. Some vineyards are very close to the sea and get much cooler sea breezes while others are at an altitude of up to 350m and are cooled by the elevation.
In addition, there is a three-way sun radiation to help ripen the notoriously difficult Plavac tannins. Once from above (Hvar is the sunniest island in Europe at an average of 7.7 hours a day), once as reflection from the white soils and then finally on days when the sea is calm, the rays’ refraction back up to the hillside vineyards. This last type of sunlight is only possible in the steep vineyard on the south side – some slopes are at an angle of over 60 degrees! As a consequence, no machinery can be used in the vineyard at all.
Plavac Mali is the offspring of Zinfandel or Tribidrag as it is known here, and another local variety called Dobričić. Although most famous in the USA, Zinfandel originates in Croatia and up until the 19th century dominated red grape plantings in Dalmatia. After this time, it suffered disease and was overtaken by Plavac. When planted on too fertile a soil, Plavac fails to ripen adequately or with the necessary concentration.
On the north side of the island the land is much flatter with a mix of richer red soils on the UNESCO protected Stari Grad plain and poorer red/brown soils in the hillsides with pockets of more sandy soil. It is here where most of the white varieties are grown. Local grapes such as Bogdanuša, Kuć, Marastina and Prć now sit alongside the famous variety of Korčula, Pošip.
However, the island provides another area of viticultural interest which is neither north nor south – the sub region of Vrh. It is a plateau of richer red soil just below the peak of Sveta Nikola. At around 550m and winds from all four corners, it provides a microclimate where the grapes retain freshness and delicacy. This tiny sub region has few vines but amongst these high vineyards lay the almost extinct Darnekuša which Ahearne Vino uses to make the delicate yet structured Rosina rosé.