In the winery at Tillingham, Ben Walgate is using a glass smape to draw a sample of natural wine from a stainless steel tank. The opaque liquid glows like citrine in the glass a field blend made from a combination of six grape varieties grown here in the rolling Sussex Weald. We take a sip. I'm very excited about these wines, he says.
Walgate, who hand-planted the vines three years ago, is quite literally tasting the fruits of his labour. His tone becomes serious reverential almost as he explains the winemaking process: This is made from our first day's pickings. The grapes were foot-stomped, macerated for 48-hours, then pressed, fermented in barrel and decanted into this stainless steel tank where the juice will sit until spring. He resists reeling off tasting notes. Instead, he describes the wine as having a certain Tillingham-ness to it, a certain energy.
Leaving the winery, we head through a galvanised metal gate into the first block of young vines. I grew up on an arable farm in North Lincolnshire, Walgate explains. Visually, it was not so dissimilar to this. He gestures towards the flatly-lit slopes that today, are buffeted by a saline breeze. At the time I took it for granted, he continues. I just wanted to escape, so I went off to university without a thought of doing anything agricultural.
After studying humanities for four years, Walgate found work in the wine bars of London and Newcastle and began reading up on alternative ways of winemaking. The fact that these biodynamic wines tasted more interesting, and that they were this living thing really piqued my interest, he recalls. A tour of Europe's biodynamic vineyards confirmed that interest and he returned to the UK to study winemaking and grape growing.
In 2004, Walgate began importing biodynamic and organic wines. He then restored a vineyard on the Isle of Wight before becoming CEO of Gusbourne, an esteemed sparkling wine producer in the nearby Kent village of Appledore. Whilst there, he was introduced to the conservationist, Lord Devonport, a local estate owner looking to diversify his land. We were incredibly well aligned in terms of our values and how we imagined we might structure a business, says Walgate. In the back my mind, I always knew that this model was what I wanted: diversified, regenerative farming, low-intervention winemaking, food, drink, hospitality, as well as a place to live that has always been where my interest lies.
Work began apace at Tillingham in 2017. Walgate bought in some grapes, purchased some second-hand winemaking equipment and began producing organic and biodynamic natural wines in what he describes as an off-piste, left-of-centre way. His slow, labour-intensive production methods are driven by an innate curiosity for ancient winemaking. He has, for example, buried a collection of Georgian clay urns, or qvevri, in the ground beneath a Victorian oast house. I've always wanted to ferment in clay, he explains. The idea of using a tradition of winemaking that's eight millennia old is incredibly important to me. Fermenting in clay is the most primitive and natural way of making wine, so why not champion that?
At the same time, Walgate began preparing the 70-acres of low-lying land according to biodynamic principles. This involved enriching the denuded soil with compost and burying cow horns stuffed with dung into the ground. Some months later, these were dug up and the dung stirred through rainwater. This microbial tea is then applied to the soil to boost microbial diversity. In May 2018, Tillingham's first vines were planted. (There are now 20 grapes varieties planted across seven blocks.) Sheep from a neighbouring farm were released to graze between the vines, and restoration of the walled-garden began.
Whilst the first grapes fermented, Walgate worked with a local architecture firm and interior designer to restore the farm's disparate outbuildings, reimagining a fiberglass workshop and hops storage barn into what is now an urbane yet industrial bar, wine shop and restaurant with rooms. This summer, a pizza oven made from local clay was installed in an open-sided Dutch barn and there are plans to erect three bell tents in the spring, once his team of rare-breed pigs have cleared the brambles.
Walgate is thankful that 2020 has been a really good year for grapes, if nothing else. In September, the first Tilingham harvest was foot-trodden by a team of volunteers. These biodynamic field blends will be bottled and sold next spring but before then, there's Christmas to consider. With the doors to the bar and restaurant open once more, Walgate can already detect a thirst for Tillingham Traditional Method 2017 a classic blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier that is less aggressively fizzy than non-natural sparkling wines. This year, for many reasons, it feels and tastes entirely right.
Interview by Nell Card.
Photographs by Maria Bell.
For more information on Tillingham or to book a festive meal in their restaurant, a tour of the vineyard with Ben or an overnight stay, please see their website.