Meet the M&S wine buyer who now makes her own on a beautiful Croatian island

It's not all been plain sailing for Jo Ahearne, who gave up the nine-to-five for a life creating her own wine on the island of Hvar

Hvar island
Though it may look idyllic, Jo Ahearne's new life on Hvar island is no picnic Credit: Getty Images Contributor

I’m lucky that Jo Ahearne agreed to speak to me during harvest. Winemakers are always hard-pressed when the grapes are being picked, so it’s no surprise that our chat is aborted a couple of times. “It’s all going crazy here as all the whites have decided to come in at the same time. Normally they form an orderly queue,” she messages from the Croatian island of Hvar, a haven of pine trees and lavender fields in the Adriatic, where she has been making wine since 2014. Another day we’re emailing at 4am.

She’s up because the chiller, which keeps the fermenting grape juice from getting too warm, has broken and this was the only time the electrician could come. “I think he offered because he never thought I would say yes so early.” Then a freezer she borrowed turned out to “stink of fish”; she had to sack one lot of helpers and feed another, drive to the ferry to collect a new spare part for the chiller – and all the while manage the flow of grapes into the winery.

All of this is par for the course. I have known Ahearne for years both as a friend and a colleague and she has always been extremely capable and resourceful as well as gloriously, ­terrifyingly straight-talking. It’s one reason why I wanted to speak to her for this column (the other is that she’s forged an interesting path).

A winemaker’s lot can sound like an escapist fantasy, a romantic round of sipping rosé in a beautiful landscape. It’s true that wine is made in lovely places but there’s a lot of slog. You don’t just pitch up, glue your name on to the bottle and watch the cash roll in.

Ahearne is a London-born Master of Wine, who passed the extremely difficult MW exams while working as a winemaker/buyer/blender for M&S. She’s a sharp taster too; I once visited a producer in Italy and was told with something between irritation and admiration that Ahearne always rapidly identified the best tanks in the winery and took them for M&S. Before M&S she spent over a decade working at wineries, including Charles Melton, in Australia. After it she headed up wine at Harrods, a post that was not a match made in heaven for her robust and extremely down-to-earth nature. She left Harrods to work as a consultant, an itinerant life that took her to Macedonia, among other places, where a wine agent suggested she look at Croatia. “I had been to Croatia on holiday when I first came back from Australia,” she says. “After the first two days I started drinking beer and G&T because the wine was so awful.” The agent said, “Things have really changed, you should come and have a look.”

One wine show in Split later, Ahearne’s interest was snagged. “There are over 100 indigenous grape varieties in Croatia. To be honest the reason you’ve never heard of some of them is because nobody would want to buy them. But there are also a lot of amazing ones, with individuality and a sense of place, and more and more people are responding to that. Ten years ago people would say, ‘Plavac Mali? I’ve never heard of that. I’ll have some cabernet.’ Now more will say, ‘Oooh I’ve never heard of that, I must try it.’ ” She pauses. “I also thought, ‘Does the world need another chardonnay, made by Jo Ahearne? No, not really.’ ”

Hvar is a large, narrow island, 42 miles from one end to the other, with thriving fishing and tourism industries. Why did she end up here? “In a beautiful country it stands out as very beautiful. Plus I felt that I could get to grips with understanding an island rather than the whole country. Getting anywhere takes forever – but that’s what makes it special.”

Ahearne recalls making a trip to London to stay with her oldest friend who, after two days, told her: “We need to have a bit of a talk. You need to get off that island, darling.” Says Ahearne: “I’d forgotten how to talk to people because I would literally go two weeks without a conversation. With anyone.”

Ahearne is self-funded, which meant “living on a shoestring”; in the early days I remember seeing Facebook pictures of sunsets, suggestive of a champagne lifestyle, then hearing she was living in a tiny room that was freezing all winter. She buys in grapes and works out of a winery in the hilltop village of Vrisnik. Built in 1925, it once housed the local co-operative. I ask her to describe it and there’s a throaty laugh. “I had some American visitors tasting from a yacht a couple of weeks ago. And one guy walked into the winery and said, ‘I don’t mean to be rude but it just proves the fact that you can make good wine in really s--- conditions.’ ”

The wines are in constant evolution as she figures out how to get the best out of the local varieties. Aimed at restaurants, they are sold under a beautiful Ahearne label. At the moment there is a rosé made from darnekuša which tastes of dried rose petals and rhubarb. I really love Ahearne Wild Skins 2017 (Seven Cellars, £37.50). A blend of kuć, bogdanuša and pošip, it’s pale gold wine but made like an orange wine, by leaving it on the skins to extract aromatics. It demonstrates a lightness of touch and smells of dried apricots, fennel, pear, crystallised ginger, star jasmine… “Bergamot, tangerine peel, quince,” Ahearne says, “The aromatics are the thing that kill me every time.”

There is also a new, lightish red called Terence Patrick that has not yet made it to the UK but which Ahearne says she developed because the red grape plavac mali usually makes heavy red wines, “But it’s quite hot here in summer, so I wasn’t drinking my own wine. I like drinking pinot noir in summer so for two years I’ve been working on a blend of Dalmatian grape varieties, including plavac mali, to make a red with that same silkiness as pinot noir. I love it.”

Six vintages in, Ahearne says she feels more settled. The language still eludes her – Croatian has seven cases, and dialects vary from one village to the next – and bureaucracy has caused some serious problems; one year she was refused permission to sell her wines. But she feels and looks and sounds like a woman who has really accomplished something. “People ask if I’m going to stay and I look at them and say, ‘Nobody would go through what I’ve gone through in the last six years as a short-term thing. Wine is not short-term.’ But I do feel part of the community now. And I love the freedom to make the wines I want to make.”

Wines of the week

Domaine de la Réserve d’O Bilbo 2018

St Saturnin, Coteaux du Languedoc, France (15%, Lea & Sandeman, £21.50/19.50 single bottle/mixed case price)

Redolent of warm sunshine, damsons, dark fruits and dried herbs. The grapes are grenache (with cinsault and a little syrah), and it’s made in the foothills of the Massif Central. The feel is sumptuously enveloping, smooth but with a savoury edge.

Vinus by Paul Mas Clairette du Languedoc 2019

France (12.5%, 
Morrisons, £6.50 down from £8.25 until Oct 6)

Clairette is a little-known grape grown in the Rhône, where it is often used alongside viognier, marsanne and white grenache. Here, unusually, it takes centre stage to make a white wine with a creamy texture, a richer taste and a gentle fragrance of waxy white blossom.

Sorcova Pinot Grigio 2019

Romania (12%, Waitrose, £5.84 down from £7.79 until Sept 22)

There is nothing complicated about this white: nothing particularly striking about it either. But that is its charm: it does what it was made to do: it’s bright, clean and innocuous, with a pleasingly perky spritz. Mild florals and gentle citrus bring zip and fragrance. It’s deckchair wine: effortless, easeful.