Tourism on Hvar has been a wonderful thing to watch evolve over the years, and there have been changes in trends since I started writing about the island over six years ago. Things have certainly got more innovative - off-road safaris, cooking classes and a range of new adrenaline activities to name a few, but one area of tourism which has really taken off is wine.
Although I was a wine merchant for five years back in the UK, I was never particularly taken by the local wines I came across in Jelsa's restaurants, and indeed it was only when I started researching my first guidebook for Hvar that I found out just what a quality wine island it was, both in its 2400-year history and heritage and its quality modern producers with their varied indigenous varieties. Here I was all this time living on an island with regular gold-medal winning producers internationally, and I knew nothing about it. And if I didn't know much as a resident, how many tourists did? It still staggers me that such a large percentage of Hvar restaurants prefer to stock and promote wines from other parts of Croatia than the excellent local variety.
And then, something changed. An enterprising young local started offering wine tours. The concept was simple. Pick up guests in Hvar Town, then take them through the vineyards and olive groves to central Hvar, the heartland of the Hvar wine story, explaining things along the way, then introducing them to the delights of such fine producers as Andro Tomic, Ivo Dubokovic and Zlatan Otok. Add a few special touches to make the day truly complete, such as a lunch in a picturesque olive grove accompanied by fine wines, and an overview of Hvar's natural treasures and wine-making traditions was an excellent memory of the holiday.
This being Croatia, of course, as soon as someone tries something new, the masses tend to follow, and it was with quiet amusement that I passed certain wineries in the ensuing seasons, to find tour 'guides' smoking cigarettes while waiting for their guests having their wine experience inside. What started out as a personalised wine tour from the initiator of this kind of tourism was adopted by most of the copycats into a minibus transfer service, where guests were offloaded to the winery and left to meet the winemaker. Any additional experience outside of the winery was relegated to enjoying the scenery out of the minibus window.
Rather than get swallowed up by the so-called competition, the original wine tour diversified to offer even more exceptional programmes. I recommended them to friends of mine visiting from the States, requesting that they organise something special. Hours later, two gushing Americans heaped praise on the day of their European trip, a speedboat wine tour! Wine and Waves, a speedboat tour of southern Hvar to the Zlatan Otok winery in Sveta Nedjelja, one of Croatia's most famous wineries.
As the 'competition' were bussing their guests from Hvar Town to the wineries, the original wine tourism company was looking for exceptional ways to provide the true hidden Dalmatia to their guests. Slow food wine gourmet extravaganzas, such as the unique experience of Teo Huljic at the back of the old town in Jelsa, with his sea urchin caviar, three island burger (Brac lamb, Hvar boar and Pag cheese), washed down with indigenous wines, some of which are so rare (he is the ONLY winemaker producing 100% Mekuja, an endangered Hvar variety, for example).
Of course, being local and well acquainted with the winemakers on a social and friendship level, it was possible to discuss offering something a little extra, which was not available to the minibus transfer wine tour crews outside. Individual and personalised tastings with the winemakers themselves, but not just their regular fare, but some of their older vintages and favourite bottles. And then - new for 2017 and more very soon - even the possibility of arranging time and tasting with the first Master of Wine making wine in Croatia, and not only that, but making wine on Hvar.
Hvar's wine story is very diverse, from its indigenous grapes, of which there are several, to its eclectic mix of winemakers, all of them with different egos, personalities and - most importantly - wines. Whereas the minibus transfer wine tours had a choice of three wineries at best, here was the original wine tour with a minimum of eight, each with their own strengths and attractions, and visits to one - or all - could be arranged, including winemakers that I had not come across in the five years I have been writing about Hvar wines.
Local knowledge and an innovative approach, but what does local knowledge mean? I recently caught the main guide for the original wine tour agency for a beer, and I asked him to name his three top reds and three top whites. His answer was so passionate, so intimate and so comprehensive that I found myself wanting to go on his next tour, as well as asking myself how does one effectively market the higher quality that one is offering compared to the mass minibus transfer wine tourism which is becoming the standard?
I don't have an answer to that, but I do guarantee that if you are looking for a quality Hvar wine experience, which starts the moment you are collected and ends the moment you are dropped off, you will find something that suits your needs at Hvar Wine Tours.