Filling in the Blancs: Joanne Ahearne MW

Working with wine for almost ten years, I can with certainty say that all your beliefs about this tiny alcoholic microcosmos being full of pretentious pricks and certified know-alls stay true even in 2018. As a newbie, you can roam through restaurants, wine bars and shops for years and never know who’s selling you bullshit, until you get matter into your own hands, in this case matter being – books. What you can do with knowledge is unmeasurable. It gives you the opportunity to wear a cape and fight off soul-sucking demons, staying true to the ones that need that spark of hope in a world full of darkness. One of those heroes is British-born, Croatian-based Joanne Ahearne.

Becoming a Master of Wine and staying grounded because of it are two utterly difficult tasks. Jo started her career in 1998 in Australia, working for wineries such as Charles Melton, Pipers Brook, Jacob’s Creek and Hardy’s. This is her timeline after that: Oddbins (my absolute favourite wine merchant in the UK), Marks & Spencer (winemaker/buyer), Harrods (head wine buyer), consultancies all around Europe, and finally Ahearne Vino, her own winery in Hvar, Croatia. Relating to this, I totally see Jo and myself drinking some proper natural juice under the Dalmatian sun whilst thinking of a master plan on how to conquer the world with Croatian wine. OK, let’s not get carried away. The drinking and the sun are good enough. For now. *evil laugh*

Winemakers usually get confused with this question ‘cause they already have their terrain set up, but let’s say you could own a vineyard ANYWHERE in the world, which special destination would you choose?

That’s a big question! Since I come from London I have no natural affiliation with one region. I’ve worked in so many wonderful places – the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Clare Valley, the foothills of the Andes (both sides), Burgundy, Piedmont…but if I had to commit, then I’d love a plot on the plateau where I buy my Darnekuša for my rosé Rosina in Hvar. It’s about 550m above sea levelled as it’s a plateau. It’s neither on the north or the south side. It’s much cooler than other parts of Hvar which gives the grapes great acidity and freshness.

Other than that I’d love to grow Nerello Mascelese on Mount Etna or Vermentino in the Adelaide Hills. Mount Etna because I love the minerality there and Sicily is such a stunningly beautiful island. And Adelaide Hills because it’s so beautiful but so near the city!

We can both agree on the Nerello. A grape full of potential! Continuing to experimentation, what’s the strangest food & wine pairing you’ve experienced?

I once matched Sauternes with steak and it worked. Rather like a sweet and sour effect. Mainly I’m searching for a match that makes the best out of both the food and the wine. Decades ago I can remember spoiling a lovely bottle of Bordeaux because I’d served it with slow cooked lamb in a tomato sauce. I never forgot the disappointment and vowed to be more analytical of my choices in future. But to be honest one of the most important things about enjoying any food and wine pairing is the company in which they are shared.

In general, there’s no such thing as a new idea when it comes to food and wine. I had an amazing pumpkin risotto paired with a dry Oloroso – the sweetness of the pumpkin countered by the dryness of the wine but both possessing this inherent nuttiness which was glorious. Using an off-dry wine like Gewurtztraminer with pršut as the ‘melon’ to counter the saltiness is amazing. And I love lighter reds with ‘meaty’ fish like swordfish and tuna – Pinot Noir, Lasina or Kadarka.

You had your fair share of hands-on experiences in countries all over the globe. Did you come around to a favourite winemaking style as a result of this?

I love anything with balance. I once had an Amarone that almost made me cry and it was 17.5% alcohol, but you would never have known it such was the delicacy and balance of the wine. But, in general, I love more delicate Pinot-esque wines like Barbaresco, lighter Brunello & Nerello Mascelese. It’s why I want to investigate Lasina and Kadarka more. And why I am incorporating Darnekuša more into my Plavac Mali.

With whites I love the more sulphidic tension of a Puligny Montrachet or other cool climate Chardonnay. And the more delicate skin contact whites where the identity of the varietal is less important than the phenolic tension that brings its own freshness to a wine but not bitterness. And the lees contact brings texture but not fatness. It’s why I use that technique on my Dalmatian whites.

Wow, a lot of things to consider and very inspirational coming from a person that makes wine on her own terms. What was your career’s “aha” moment?

I can remember doing my first vintage with Charles Melton in the Barossa Valley. After spending weeks scrubbing tanks and collecting samples from the vineyards the vintage finally started and I smelt my first ever ferment. It was like love at first smell! Even today the first ferment of every vintage takes me back to that moment. Then after harvest finished I was helping with the blends for the next release. I was tasting a collection of barrels that had all come from the same tank and were, give or take, in very similar coopers and ages of oak. And they tasted different. I was hooked and I just had to find out why. That was when I decided to go and study to be a winemaker. The most recent ‘aha’ moment was when I finally found a Hvar red grape that had the natural acidity to make a rosé from – Darnekuša.

Of all the important lessons you’ve learned in this business, what would be the most prominent one?

So many lessons really. Winemaking is a combination of art, science and business. You need to remember all three to succeed and that can be difficult. Keeping true to your style is important in a world of homogeneity. But keeping your style true to your region enables you to make the most of the grapes you have. I can’t make Chablis in Dalmatia but I can try and make the best Dalmatian white wine with the grapes available to me. It’s all about balance and physiological ripeness. Nothing else matters.

 

Check out Ahearne Vino HERE and follow her work on Facebook!

Prepared by Aleksandar Draganić.

An inspirational grape juice drinker, professional glass polisher and uncanny cuisine explorer. Find me at @grapenomad

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