Interview: Tillingham vineyard
This interview appeared in issue three of 502 bad gateway (a menswear fashion and lifestyle print publication): http://502badgateway.co.uk/
There’s something very satisfying about knowing that you’re plugging into a cult from the perspective of the novice. Over lockdown we discovered that you don’t have to have all the details to know that something is cool, or in this case, delicious. Tillingham were the natural winemakers on our radar that seemed to be delivering the highest quality if you know you know bottles available. Headed by Ben Walgate, the English vineyard uses a regenerative agricultural processes to create that wine-induced moment of respite, decompression or sly one-upmanship. A short taxi ride from Rye station, the vineyard itself is set deep in the Sussex countryside; a grape juice oasis waiting to be explored.
Ben leads us through the grape fields and tells us about Tilingham’s approach to agriculture and winemaking, row upon row of newly established vines pass us by on either side.
“Industrial farming has been all about cultivation and agrichemicals. The more you cultivate the soil, the more you disrupt the soil biology, you deplete life in the soil. The vines become more dependent on chemical inputs. Then without the support of chemical fertilisers, fungicides and pesticides you inevitably get crop failures. So, regenerative agriculture is about restoring soil life, soil biodiversity and soil structure.”
Organic farming or biodynamic farming doesn’t cover what’s going on at Tillingham. If the aim was to meet the criteria for certification then the restorative aspect of the work here could be overlooked, but the team at Tillingham are actively reversing the damage that industrial agriculture has caused to the land. It means initially there’s a lot more work but in the long term these farms are building agro-ecosystems that are more resilient and sustainable. This attitude carries through to winemaking: minimising the use of chemical inputs in each bottle to keep the wine as natural, and as true to the grapes it’s made from, as possible. Why go to all the effort when growing the grapes without chemicals if you’re going to add them into the wine?
The unseasonably cold year has delayed the ripening process, but Ben is still confident that this year will be a good one. The sun is shining and the whole experience from the moment we arrive has already made us question what we’re doing with our lives, but between us we can’t pronounce enough of the wine industry terms to justify the last minute career change.
We leave the fields and head to the winery. It seems more like a lab, stainless steel fermentation equipment is spread across the old barn building. It reinforces a point Ben had previously made:
“Sometimes if you think about natural wine and biodynamics, you think about it being a really hippy, crusty movement and it doesn’t have to be. And that’s not to say that people with dreadlocks don’t like science or machinery by any measure. I think you tend to think that because they’re using ancient practices, like Georgian qvevris and things that feel a bit pagan like biodynamics, then you feel like you must eschew technology at all costs. Use technology when it works for you”.
The set-up proves that underlying all of the hippy-shit there’s some serious wine making going on. We sample skin-contact chardonnay and pinot gris straight from the fermenter. Ben holds his glass in a dangerous manner, loosely gripping the base — the man is clearly a maverick. We can only weakly clutch our glasses at the top of the stems as we discuss the effects of skin contact and multiple stages of winemaking. Maceration. Foot-crushing. Pneumatic crushing. Carbonic fermentation. At one point Ben uncorks a barrel that burps wines all over the top of itself, this is just part of the process. It’s a science that’s as close to alchemy as you can get.
We mooch through to the oast house (a building previously used to dry hops for beer, pointy like a witches hat and common in this part of the country). It’s beautiful. Inside qvevris of different sizes are buried in the ground waiting for their next use. These clay pots are of Georgian origin, a country with a wine culture over 8,000 years old. That’s literally older than the Christian God. They give the wine a wonderful grippy (as in coats your mouth, sticks to your rib — like lyrics from Talib) texture. Texture is something that we talk about a lot whilst we’re here. A characteristic of natural wines, things happen in the wine that creates a definitive imbibing experience. You’ll know it if you compare a Jacob’s Creek rosé aka Lady Petrol aka chemically mass-produced wine to any naturally inclined wine. It reminds you what your palette is for.
We leave the oast house to return to the main building that hosts Tillingham’s bar and restaurant. Ben pours us a pint of local session IPA and we sit down to speak with him about English wine-making, regenerative agriculture and if olives or crips are the better wine snack.
502: What’s the Rye terroir like?
BW: So the best way to describe our terroir is that it’s not straightforward. There are three distinct soil types interplaying here. There’s a widely held view that terroir isn’t just about your soils though. It’s the nature of the sites, the fact that they’re low lying, some are very sheltered, some aren’t, but generally being close to the sea moderates the climate, that all feeds into it. And then some of it’s about intention and what you’re actually doing because that impacts the terroir more than the terroir impacts the wine. The winemaker impacts the wine as much as the terroir.
502: Does regenerative agriculture feed directly into that?
BW: For me, wines that come from farms or winemakers that embrace this have more energy, they’re more delicious. They still get it wrong. It’s not guaranteed. You still screw things up, but the potential is there.
502:What’s it been like being a British winemaker?
BW: Some people think we’re a bit of a joke because of Brexit or whatever. I think there’s still a lot of respect for what Englishness is or Britishness is globally. Working unconventionally, being a natural winemaker, that actually helps you stand out from the crowd, if there is a crowd of British winemakers. The people who are interested in low intervention or natural wine get you and the fact that you’re the only one that’s actively exporting. We were probably the first ones to create noise in that space. It’s helped us hugely, I think, being British.
502: Are you aware of whatever the traditional kind of European wine-making view is on it? Are you viewed as a little bit of an upstart from England?
BW: Only by conventionally minded people who sort of think “oh, you make wine in England? Your wine must be shit”. Some people treat it like a novelty, but I think amongst people who know, who aren’t ignorant fuckwits, they understand. English wines in the sparkling wines category have beaten champagnes and blind tastings and won trophies. So it’s changing, but I think mainstream acceptance is still pretty like “What? you grow grapes in England?”.
502: If you’re going to have a snack with a glass, are you more of an olives or a crisps guy?
BW: Well, traditionally olives are meant to be a thing you don’t have as part of a wine tasting, but I’d love having a glass of wine and some olives so, you know, do one. I love having some nuts and olives and a glass of natural wine.
502: Do you have a favorite kind of wine accessory? Whether that’s like an opener or a stopper or something like that?
BW: I love using a corkscrew. Have you seen the shoe on the wall thing? No? So if you’re out with a bottle of wine and you’ve got no way of opening it, no corkscrew, you can take off your shoe and put the wine in like the heel of your shoe and then whack it against a brick wall and the impact the wine moving in the bottle pushes the cork out. Really inconvenient. For me, a nice glass is really important too.
502: Do you have a preferred shape?
BW: Zalto is my favorite class. There’s the Zalto universal,which subject to the wine style, is pretty much a go-to. We use Gabriel’s, which is what we’ve been tasting out of, which is a similar shape that creates the same sort of effect, but like a third of the price and they’re much less fragile. The shape’s great and it looks beautiful, but also the fineness, it’s almost taking the glass out of the equation. I think it’s a bit of a wanky metaphor, but it’s where you’re not really noticing it is better.
502: Are there things that you’re sort of targeting that are left in winemaking for you to learn?
BW: I’ve experimented a lot. I’m not sure how many things there are left to try. I think that there is learning what our terroir can produce and what we’re going to get from our vineyards and how that’s going to change over the next five years as the vines establish. Trying to figure out what wines we’re going to make and what the overarching style is. There might not be, it might continue to be that we make 20 different wines and a little bit of everything so that for me is what to learn for the next few years.
502: Is there a long term ambition? I know you were saying you wanted to be a closed circle and do everything here, but is that the long-term goal?
BW: Complete cult status as well. It’s a cult. For us to be viewed as a cult but no one dies. People don’t have to die for it to be a cult. No mass suicide. Just more wine.
502: When you started out, I read that you were kind of just got some grapes and some sort of kit and went from there, but how far along the journey are you?
BW: I still think we’ve got up to five years before we’ve reached maturity as a business. That’s because the farming is going to take that much longer. As a business, in terms tourism and distribution, that’s almost pretty much there. I’d like to do more on the farm, maybe more glamping or a self guided tour so you’d go off on a walk and there’s picnic spots. Making it even more of a place you can spend more time and then chill out and connect with nature. Obviously all the while just trying to be less busy so you can enjoy it more. It’s a great way of life.
The other great thing about it as well is that we can create so many jobs and hopefully once the business matures as well pay people even better. It’s hospitality which is not the best paid profession. As our hospitality business gets more and more successful, then our team will be better and better remunerated as well. That’s really important. It shouldn’t be just because it’s a really cool place to work that you accept to work there. Whether you’re a waiter or whatever else doesn’t mean you deserve to be paid less. To be a great waiter here, you’ve got to have an intelligence and a set of skills that should be rewarded properly.
502: Have you ever had a hangover from your own wine?
BW: Absolutely not. It was all the other wines I drank that contributed to the hangover.