I wrote about my visit to Ben Walgate’s Tillingham Wines back in June, here. Quite a lot of interest has been generated in what Ben Walgate is doing there, in the far east of Sussex. This is in part because he is largely following a method of natural winemaking, which we see very little of in the UK, and partly because we don’t see many genuinely artisan winemakers either. These reasons have probably been eclipsed, in certain circles, by Ben’s introduction of a couple of Georgian qvevris, imported and buried on the farm, which were used for Ortega (the larger of the two), and for an innovative qvevri cider in the other.
Ben has been busy these last couple of weeks, as photos of him foot treading grapes on social media show, but he did find time to drop by for a tasting at Plateau in Brighton last Wednesday evening. Thankfully the trains decided to co-operate with me for once, and I was able to get down only a little late, so that I could join in and assess what I had tasted in June now that the bottles are all labelled-up and have had a chance to settle.
As soon as I’d grabbed a seat in Plateau’s large upstairs events room I was handed a glass of Starvecrow Qvevri Cider. Ben makes the Starvecrow Ciders with orchard-owning neighbours on the farm at Tillingham. The latest two releases are undoubtedly the most interesting yet. This 2017 vintage was kept on skins in Ben’s smaller buried qvevri for seven months. It has real qvevri texture from the clay vessel and extended skin contact (although its colour is less orange than you might expect). In fact texturally it is just like an “orange” wine, but you can taste that it is cider without doubt. Only 200 litres were made, though Ben has a whole load more qvevri on order. Unusual, but take that as a compliment, Ben. It’s my third time of tasting it this year and it has gone from “good” (London Wine Fair) to “really good” in a few months.
The second pour was Starvecrow Bourbon Cask Cider 2017. An old barrel was simply filled and left for seven months. That’s no way to make cider, surely? There’s just this strange thing with Ben, that his experiments work. What you get here is a really interesting, nuanced, cider. It retains the freshness of the apples used – if you read that previous article you’d know that they use mainly eating apples (Jonagold, Golden Delicious, Braeburn) with Bramleys providing acidity. This is fresh, but more complex than any commercial cider, and than most artisan ciders, I’ve tasted. It’s less “unusual” than the Qvevri.
The name of the first wine, Tillingham Pet Rosé 2017, might lead you to assume this is a petnat, but it isn’t quite that in exact methodology. It is a simple and very nice sparkler, made in the bottle and crown capped. It’s packed with very fresh red fruits, combined with a generous twist of grapefruit zip, especially on the finish. It is bottled with its yeast sediment, so you’ll find it cloudy, like petnat. It adds a little texture.
The grape varieties here are, as often with Tillingham wines, complicated. The three sparkling classics (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Meunier) were blended with a 300 litre tank of Schönburger plus some more Pinot Noir and all co-fermented. The result, just 10% abv, a refreshing wine with a slightly sour/bitter finish to complement the acidity and fruit.
Tillingham Artego 2017 (10.5% abv) is so named because the Ortega grapes Ben purchased from a nearby vineyard were not planted under DEFRA’s PDO Quality Wine Scheme. For the same reason he can’t label it as “English Wine”, using instead “Product of England”. The distinction is subtle. You just have to trust in people like Tillingham’s UK agent, Les Caves de Pyrene.
So, here Ben lightly crushed the grapes into open top fermenters, where he foot stomped them twice a day for five days. The juice was then pressed in small batches in his basket press. Half the wine was aged in old (second fill) Burgundy barrel, and half in steel. No sulphur was added.
Ortega is an early ripening variety but generally shows lower acids. It has a nice aromatic quality. The bouquet here is noticeably peachy, and the wine is gently frothy. The palate has that creamy peach note again, but the finish is bitter, not sweet. There is acidity, but it’s rounded out, not sharp.
Artego is a lovely wine and it would be a good way to end the Ortega part of the tasting were it not for Tillingham Qvevri Artego 2017. Here, Ben destemmed the Ortega and crushed it lightly in open vats, macerating by foot just the same as the previous wine. Then the juice and skins were placed into the larger of Ben’s qvevri, which was then sealed with a wooden lid and wax. During its ageing a funny thing happened – a layer of flor grew on top of the wine. Ben was worried on tasting the wine at the top of the qvevri that it would end up like Sherry, but the wine lower down, especially that close to the lees at the bottom, was very different. When all blended together the result is, in context, amazing.
This is the most expensive Tillingham wine so far, retailing at £35 to £40, or thereabouts, but it is also the best so far. I think this is impressive. You do get qvevri texture, but not as much texture as in a radical orange wine. You get texture, but fruit as well, and it’s fairly smooth texture at that. It’s expensive in part because there’s just 400 litres of this cuvée, the size of that larger qvevri. It’s one of those wines, a bit like Aligoté Skin from Andrew and Emma Nielsen at Le Grappin, that you really have to try to taste. I hope that a lot more wonderful wines appear in the coming years once the next shipment of qvevri arrives.
There was one more wine to come, a work in progress to finish with. It is as yet unreleased and unlabelled (so no photo), but Tillingham Col 2017 will be a Col Fondo-style sparkler (not a wine named after one of the finest people to grace the bar at Winemakers Club, sorry Col). Col Fondo is a style of cloudy Prosecco, but one gaining interest around the globe – you might have read about the wonderful wine made in this style by Dal Zotto (King Valley, Victoria, Australia) in my Red Squirrel Portfolio Tasting article last week.
The grape mix here is Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Meunier, a third fermented in used Burgundy barrels. It has been in bottle for around four months now and Ben thinks it will be just right for release in October. It’s frothy and has quite fresh acidity, and will be another of Tillingham’s lengthening string of fairly easy going, often quirky, always interesting and tasty, sparkling wines. Keep your eyes open. Quantities are always small so you need to get in quickly, either through Les Caves, or through the select bunch of retailers who stock the Tillingham wines.
That was the tasting. One of Plateau’s brightest personalities, the organiser of most of this exciting Brighton bar/restaurant’s wine events, was working her last day, so we decamped downstairs to wish Ania on her way over a few bottles. At this point Ben popped a bottle of Tillingham Chardonnay. The grapes were trodden for 48 hours before the juice was pressed directly into barrel. It was bottled after six months, having been more or less left, other than a light batonnage. A small amount of sulphur was added at bottling.
When I tasted this in June there was no question that it tasted a bit oaky. In only two-and-a-half months it has settled down a lot. Ben feels it still needs longer in bottle, although I’d not be quite so categorical. It is imbued with freshness now, and using a carafe really got some air into it, so I honestly enjoyed it as it is. But I’m sure Ben is right and a longer time in bottle will round it out and allow a bit more depth to show.
That’s pretty much what Ben is doing. His newly planted vines have apparently survived our drought-ridden summer, and hopefully the full range, from Gamay to Madeleine Angevine, will be deployed with the same sense of experiment that Ben has shown thus far. He seems pretty confident that the on-site guest rooms and kitchen/diner will be open next summer, along with a shop selling lamb from the farm, fruit and vegetables, and of course Tillingham wines and Starvecrow ciders. I hope the builders deliver, because if Ben pulls all this off it will be an exciting place to visit, and dine.
It won’t have gone unnoticed that I’m writing a lot at the moment. I’m enormously grateful that so many, in fact hundreds of, people are finding the time to read what I’m posting, but I know that I’m asking a lot of my most loyal readers with so many articles.
I must tell you about the Jura Dinner I spoke at last week, and that article might come out tomorrow, but as with this article, I’ll try to keep it reasonably short. I’ll try to hold off on August’s top wines until next week (it may require two parts over two weeks this time), before I report on next Tuesday’s big Les Caves de Pyrene 30th Anniversary Tasting, which I’m sure will be something special. There’s plenty more to come after that as well. I hope you enjoy what’s coming up.