Updated: Mar 18
"The impression is in the bottle"
When I asked Ivana Tolj what she would want people to know about the Tolj family winery - Saints Hills - her answer spoke volumes to me: "People need to know nothing about the winery. The impression is in the bottle".
Ivana and Ernest's story is simple yet unusual, and for many of us, it is what dreams are made of. Neither were born into a wine-making family. Growing up in Dalmatia, one of the oldest grape growing regions in Europe, the couple were both wine lovers when they met. It was in 2006 that they took a major step that, unbeknownst to them at the time, was going to change the direction of their lives. When a piece of forested government-owned land, was put up for sale, they somewhat spontaneously made the decision to invest and transform the dense woodland into vineyards. The land was truly virgin land, untouched and dipping right into the sea. Under their vision and hands-on leadership, after clearing the land and crushing the stone, it was soon to become the first ecological vineyard in Croatia. "It all started with Sv. Roko (Saint Roch) vineyards, and then we got addicted!"
Saints Hills - the Winery of the Saints - was soon to expand its presence from coastal Komarna first to Dingač, Croatia's first protected wine region (1965), and then to Istria, Croatia's gastronomic heartland in the north-west - a peninsula that also embraces the Adriatic Sea. It did not happen overnight, the growth happened in small steps and was a natural evolution. Ivana speaks of how the business built itself, but one thing I can tell you is that "an unending quest for perfection" doesn't come without passion and hard work in equal measures. Early on this journey of discovery, wine became an integral part of Ernest and Ivana's lives. "Almost without realizing it we started to identify ourselves as wine-makers ... we started to identify with nature. Wine-making is a life, it becomes part of you, it feels like family". Hearing this authentic emotion, it was not a surprise when Ivana went on to tell me that their three vineyards were all named for their children, as well as bearing the names of Saints - Sv. Roko, Sv. Ante and Sv. Lucia. Ivana then revealed that they had a fourth child, so I could not help myself but to ask the obvious question ... "No, no, no!" she replied laughing, "three vineyards is enough!" And so it is, that Sv Lorena protects the family's Istrian olive groves, and it is their extra virgin olive oil that is dedicated to their youngest child, not a vineyard. Well, thats what I am told today, but nothing would surprise me ...
Ivana oozes enthusiasm as she shares her perspective on Dalmatia's two flagship grapes that they proudly transform into the nectar of the gods. She explains to me how Plavac Mali is a grape "through which you see Dalmatia" and one that gives a "real expression of terroir". "The grape loves the sun, the stone, the sea breezes and the cool nights ... It is a grape that needs love and care however, and when it receives this care and is harvested at the right time, it produces a wine of great expression and balance, with beautiful aromas of cherry and dried prunes." Average yields are kept low, and sun exposure is maximized, resulting in what she describes as the type of red wine that Dalmatia is all about - "big reds with shoulders".
"Pošip has really blossomed in the last 10 years". She goes on to share how working with this grape has been a process of discovery. Their pošip vineyards are southern facing with high sun exposure and, as you would expect, they experience low rainfall during the growing season. The soil conditions therefore become all the more important. The combination of red soil with about 15% limestone content, which allows the soil to retain moisture, has become a winning formula for the crafting of what some would call pošip perfection.
Speaking as a true born and bred Dalmatian, Ivana describes Pošip as an "everyday wine to drink", a perfect companion to long, warm summer nights, to be enjoyed with friends and family. The days and nights that we all long for. Don't be mistaken however, it is a medium bodied wine with structure and presence, well balanced and with good acidity. The intensity on the nose and palate is pronounced. Peach and apricot aromas and flavours combine with mediterranean herbal notes and a subtle almond aftertaste. When Ivana talks about Plavac Mali, on the other hand, she sees a "wine to enjoy in a more philosophical sense", a wine to be opened towards the end of a beautiful dinner, where you can sit back, relax and relish the layers and depth of the wine. As Ivana spoke, I found myself lost in the aromas of berries, spices and vanilla, and lost in the taste of plums, figs and the Dalmatian terroir. There are definitely worse places to get lost!
Ivana was speaking to me from Zagreb, just a few days after the shocking earthquake that has caused many additional challenges for a city, like so many others, undergoing the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. The internet dropped during our call, and for a while we struggled to reconnect. A frequent occurrence in the recent post-quake days, but something that in the grand scheme of things is seen as a very minor inconvenience. Yet, reconnect we did, and I was thankful that we were able to, as it was now that Ivana spoke about the family's vision, what drives them and what they wanted others to know about them. "The one thing that is important is to be able to create a connection to the wine and what is in the bottle ... Wine creates inspiration in you." She reflected on the biggest compliments that she has received since their journey started. All of them had one common theme - when the consumer not only remembered their wine, but when they remembered how they felt when they experienced the wine. For Ernest & Ivana Tolj, their labour of love is all about the experience.
In a time of relative darkness, Ivana's light shone very brightly though our entire conversation. I had had the pleasure of virtually meeting a delightful, passionate, engaging and very successful lady. After our call she shared a few photos with me, including this
beautiful shot of the two wine-lovers who together created the "Wines of the Saints".
It was heartwarming and made me smile. I was intrigued by the title - "ljubav e smijeh" - and, given my lack of linguistic skills, had to look it up. I found myself immediately responding to her to share my thoughts. Her response to me, a person thousands of miles away who she had only met an hour or two before, was: "sending some right now!"
The impression may indeed be in the bottle, but I will also remember this connection every time I sit down to enjoy their wonderful wines.
If you are inspired and eager to experience the impression in the bottle, two Saints Hills wines are currently available at the LCBO as part of the launch of online Destination Croatia:
Saints Hills Sv Roko (Plavac Mali) (Product ID 709997)
Saints Hills Posh (Pošip) (Product # 709989)