It is one of the great wine towns of Dalmatia, and in its heyday, one of the most important in the region.
Before the devastating arrival of phylloxera in the late 19th century, the island of Hvar had some 5,700 hectares of wines under cultivation, and its wines were exported all over Europe, with Jelsa a busy wine harbour.
Things are a lot different today, with less than 5% of those vineyards still under cultivation, a mere 280 hectares, but what today's winemakers lack in quantity, they more than make up for in quality. The wines of Andro Tomic are to be found in over 500 restaurants all over Croatia (and his sweet Prosek dessert wine is reckoned to be the best in the country), the wines of Croatia's leading boutique winemaker Ivo Dubokovic are highly prized in the best restaurants in Zagreb, and they include one which is made with Croatia's only Master of Wine, Ivan Barbic (he became MW earlier this year), and deep in the back streets of Jelsa's charming old town, Teo Huljic is producing some outstanding wines to go with his slow food gourmet experience in his restaurant of the same name.
Drive just a few kilometres and try the indigneous wines of Ivo Caric at his new konoba on the canal in Vrboksa, wines which are now sold as far away as California, and featured in Holland's only Michelin three-star restaurant. Or head inland to Svirce to the wine cooperative of the same name, home to the first certified organic Plavac Mali in all Croatia, and whose Ivan Dolac Barrique has won organic gold two years running at Biofach Mundus Vini in Germany. One of Croatia's most important pioneers in private wine production, Antun Plancic, is in Vrbanj, and through the tunnel to the south side is Zlatan Otok, whose Plavac Grand Cru is one of Croatia's best known, and best awarded, bottles, while his Posip has won gold at the prestigious Decanter Awards in London. And so it was perhaps only natural with such quality around that the first Master of Wine to make Croatia decided to do so on Hvar, and the Ahearne Rosina from Jo Ahearne is the latest quality addition to the exceptional and diverse Hvar wine list.
The recent success of Hvar winemakers has been helped by better organisation and branding, and the formation of the Hvar Wine Association in 2010 has given its member better focus and visibility. They now regularly exhibit under their own logo at trade fairs, and the regular wine tastings that they hold on some of the most picturesque squares on the island have been a great tourism hit.
And, as one would expect for a town which such a fine wine tradition, Jelsa has a wine festival which is traditionally held on the last weekend in August, the largest wine festival on the Adriatic. And it is rather a fabulous event, with much more to enjoy than just wine, and guaranteed fun and entertainment for all the family.
Jelsa recently erected a monument on its new waterfront to one of the most iconic symbols of life in the fields in Dalmatia - the humble donkey. It has proved a huge tourist hit, with many tourists posing for selfies with the beast, which in years gone by (and even in some of the steep vineyards today) provided much of the labour during grape harvest time.
And donkeys play a very popular role at Festa Vina (Festival of Wine in Croatian), with the annual donkey race attracting a number of riders of all ages, some of whom finish, and some not... See the video above.
Another top attraction is the race to climb the rope to touch the prsut at the top of the rope, much harder than it looks, and an event which attracts a number of competitors, who having reached their goal gently drop into the Adriatic and then swim ashore. Seemingly every family in Jelsa has a stand selling their local specialities, and lamb on the spit, grilled tuna and a whole host of delicacies contribute to make this a memorable gourmet experience, while there are various concerts all over the town - take your pick and enjoy the atmosphere until the early hours of the morning.
Traditionally, despite being named a wine festival in a wine town, there was actually little emphasis on wine itself, certainly of the quality variety, but that has been slowly changing in recent years, and the appointment of that boutique winemaker Ivo Dubokovic as the new Director of the Jelsa National Tourist Board earlier this year can only help improve the attraction of the festival for quality wine lovers. As you can see above, there has been increased marketing to promote Jelsa as a wine destination.
Here is Dubovokovic preparing his stand at last year's Festa Vina, before he took over his new tourist position.
The whole of Jelsa comes alive for Festa Vina, the biggest and most eagerly-anticipated party of the summer, and because there are stalls all over the harbour, with music playing in different nooks and crannies, there truly is something for everyone, which is why it has become one of the most popular events on the Adriatic in recent years. A very important change in the wine festival has been the organisation of the Hvar winemakers, giving them the opportunity to present their quality products in their own space. Last year's presentation like this was a tremendous success, and I for one am looking forward to seeing how things proceed this year.
Another great innovation for 2016 with the theme of 'Jelsa, Full of Wine' has been the introduction of regular weekly wine tastings by the Hvar Wine Association, which have been taking place every Thursday evening with live music and will continue until October in the pretty square of St. John, just off the main square.
The 2016 Jelsa Festa Vina programme has just been released, and will take place over a longer period, before the big party on the last night. See above for the highlights of the week-long event, which will contain various concerts, exhibitions, as well as celebrating the birthday of Jelsa's very own superhero, Lavanderman.