Innocence Found: Saints Hills Winery


Article by Saša Špiranec, courtesy of Playboy Magazine – Croatia

Translated and Edited by Cliff Rames, Wines of Croatia



By now many people have heard a lot of great things about Saints Hills Winery, but not many of us have actually tasted the wine. It’s like a Ferrari: everyone knows it’s a great car but very few of us have actually ever driven one. 

The owner of Saints Hills Winery is smart and passionate.  More important, he manages to skillfully combine these two very opposite characteristics. The truth is, passion and intelligence are two things in business that don’t always merge successfully – except, perhaps, in the wine business.

Ernest Tolj (Photo courtesy of Vecernji List)

A good business strategy is not a guarantee of good wine. But a sincere emotional bond between the winemaker and the product is – thank God – usually a good start toward great wine.

Of course it is not a good business strategy to produce and bottle your first vintage and then, instead of releasing it onto the market, you give it away to friends. Needless to say, that approach is not profitable.

Behind these gates, a dream come true. (Photo by Cliff Rames)

It is even less rational to release your second vintage and limit its distribution to just a dozen or so places, before giving away the rest. This approach, of course, only compounds the financial losses.  

Along comes the third vintage, a wine that you feel meets the criteria of experienced and refined gourmets, and then you release the entire batch onto the market.

This decision is based in emotion, not business. It is the passionate next move of an artist who finally pulls away the curtain to reveal his creation for all to see and judge. 

Nevina & Dingač (Photo by Cliff Rames)

That is exactly what Saints Hills Winery owner, Ernest Tolj, has done. After five years of preparation, he has finally released the Saints Hills 2009 “Nevina” white wine, a blend of Malvasia Istriana and Chardonnay, as well as a red wine made from Plavac Mali, the Saints Hills 2008 Dingač.

And the wines are brilliant!

(Photo by Cliff Rames)

In today’s world, many affluent lovers of wine desire to produce wine under labels embossed with their own names. Once they realize that a winery has a hunger for money that is like a bottomless pit, most give up on the glorious notion of being able to sit in a restaurant with business partners and order a wine named after them. 

Ernest in his vineyards. (Photo courtesy of Josipa Andrijanic)

Ernest Tolj is by far in a different camp. A serious businessman with huge ambitions, Tolj manages to merge business savvy and an unbelievable passion for wine into a clear and balanced production and marketing strategy.

He is also cognizant that he must absorb the losses of the past two vintages and carry them forward for at least the next three years. That, in fact, was the plan from the start.

And the current distribution plan is no less ambitious: Saints Hills wines will simultaneously enter the markets in Croatia, Serbia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Until now, no other winery in Croatia has achieved such a feat.  

Michel Rolland & Tolj, final blending (Photo courtesy of Saints Hills)

Such an ambitious plan requires the assistance of top notch people in the profession. Not surprising then that Mr. Tolj has hired the most important enologist/wine consultant of our time: Michel Rolland from Bordeaux, arguably the creator of some of the best wines in the world.

Michel Rolland & Tolj at Dingač (Photo courtesy of Saints Hills)

The grapes that will provide the backbone to Saints Hills wines are Malvasia Istriana (white) and Plavac Mali (red) from vineyards in Radovani, Istria (Malvasia) and the Dingač appellation (Plavac Mali) on the Pelješac peninsula – two wine-growing regions that currently show great potential.

Saints Hills vineyards, Radovani, Istria, Croatia (Photo courtesy of Saints Hills)

Saints Hills 2009 Nevina

Nevina is a brave and successful blend of Malvasia Istriana and Chardonnay created in such a way that the Istrian terroir and the Malvasia character are preserved, with the Chardonnay simply serving to strengthen the structure and enrich the flavors. Perhaps Nevina is the harbinger of a new trend in Malvasia winemaking. Based on the preliminary results, I would hope that it is.

Photo by Cliff Rames

Nevina is an extraordinarily rich wine full with intense aromas and flavors. The color is light yellow with hints of green and reflections of gold. The alluring bouquet is harmonious and successfully merges together a range of diverse aromas. First on the nose are aromas of minerals infused with ripe peaches and spicy vanilla. As the wine opens up and the aromas unfold, intense tropical fruit notes emerge, such as grapefruit, pineapple and a hint of banana. On the end, yeasty notes dominate and deliver notes of bread crusts with butter and a hint of hazelnut. An unbelievable rich and attractive nose!

On the palate, the flavors are fully in balance with the array of aromas on the nose. Immediately an expression of minerality takes hold and, despite the soft acidity, provides an appealing sensation of freshness on the palate, as well as structure and a lasting finish.

A fresh and fruity profile rises on the mid-palate and fills out the body, only to return to the same mineral expression that dominated the early stages, only now it is slightly rougher and less polished.

The finish is great, very long lasting, and characterized by minerals and stone fruits. It is mild and pleasantly bitter, with a poignant aftertaste. Simply – a great wine.

Saints Hills Dingač vineyards, Dalmatia, Croatia (Photo courtesy of Saints Hills)

Saints Hills 2008 Dingač

This wine has raised the bar and shifted the boundaries of experience. I have never tasted such a developed Dingač wine at such an early age. The 2008 vintage is already showing a level of development that other Plavac Mali wines from the 2006 vintage are just entering. With this first vintage, Saints Hills Dingač has already risen to become one of the five best Croatian Plavac Mali wines.

(Photo by Cliff Rames)

Its deep color shimmers with dark ruby, blood-red reflections, and garnet hues. The bouquet is intense and very beautiful, revealing spicy notes of black pepper, cedar, and dark chocolate interwoven with abundant fruity notes of plum, cherry, and dried figs.

This wine is full and powerful on the palate, yet it is also soft and endlessly smooth. The flavor is extraordinary with a pleasantly sweet attack that abounds with ripe black fruits infused with a sprinkle of piquant spices. However, the fruitiness is somewhat reserved on the mid-palate thanks to the heavy impact of tannin and alcohol, both of which will give the wine strength, backbone and stability in the long run.

Despite these extreme yet beneficial characteristics, the wine remains balanced, harmonious, and drinkable, with a body that is full with richly extracted flavors. Some expression of minerality emerges on the finish, which is rarely found in Plavac Mali. As the palate evolves, the wine returns us to its earlier fruitiness and sweetness, delivering a pleasant, long finish that gives rise to the fruit and spice notes from the nose, along with a hint of hazelnut on the very end.

Footnote from the Playboy Editors: Nevina and Dingač brought so much joy to our columnist that he proclaimed them “brilliant”. Now we wait to find out how much these wines will cost. We hope they won’t be as much as that Ferrari he mentioned!

Wines of Croatia:


One thought on “Innocence Found: Saints Hills Winery

  • Just returned from Peljasac 2 weeks ago! The vineyards were beautiful and the wines of Grgich and Bura even better! Must taste Saints Hills next time…sorry we missed it!

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