At the end of November I joined a nice crowd of wine trade people to visit Tillingham winery in Sussex for a catch-up. Tillingham is one of the most interesting of all English wineries, and under the lead of Ben Walgate have taken a natural direction, albeit a reasoned one where they haven’t been afraid to change the way they do things in order to get the most authentic results.
The vineyard here is now more-or-less on stream, and the first grapes from the young vines have been making estate wines for a couple of years now, and it’s really interesting to see the way this is progressing. This year they crushed 70 tons, including 20 tons of their own fruit. In 2021 there were two cuvées from their own vines, and in 2022 there will be nine. Their own fruit is organically farmed, but most of the 35 tons they buy in is conventional, simply because it’s so hard to find organic English grapes. The balance of 15 tons is contract work they do.
We began in the winery, tasting and talking, before progressing to lunch where we tasted the bottled wines now on the market.
Ben has changed direction in a few ways. He’s now disgorging his PetNat, for example, and adding some sulfites. ‘I’m not compromising,’ he says. ‘I just want the wines to be cleaner and easier to drink.’ Regarding the disgorging: ‘You can have the fun and the liveliness without the sediment.’ He also adds that it’s possible to do a quick riddle, get rid of most of the sediment, and leave the wines a little cloudy.
Tillingham are also really well known for their use of qvevris, but Ben has had some mixed experiences of late. Some of them have been exhibiting a qvevri taint known as mufti. ‘If you drink enough Georgian wine you will taste mufti,’ says Ben. ‘It is a bit like cork taint. They are difficult to clean.’ He’s now using them more for fermentation than extended storage. ‘I’m doing three months skin contact, but not a year.’
These are my notes on the things we tasted in the winery. They are brief, because these are very young wines, and also they are mostly components that won’t be bottled separately.
- Athing Mill NV – This wine, tasted from tank, is a representation of the winery as a whole: it’s a portion of everything they have ever made that is good, including cider, and also a bucket of Pinot Noir from this vintage. Pale pink, it’s super-elegant with red cherries, fine spices and some strawberry. Very fine!
- ‘R’ – carbonic Regent – so fruity and expressive. Bright with good acidity, and a crunchy raspberry character, pepper notes and some wildness.
- Little Grange Rosé – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Juicy and expressive and bright. Light red, with nice acid and some green hints. Very appealing.
- Estate Pinot Meunier – a still rosé that’s pale pink and textural with nice fruit, but needs to calm down.
- Domaine Chardonnay 2022
- Just 1000 litres made, from a 6 year old Mercurey barrel. Very fine, fresh and lively with nice lemony fruit. Juicy and fine with nice lemony brightness. Buy this! From a three year old Stockinger puncheon the same wine is crystalline, saline and bright, and even better.
- The next wine is estate, and it’s in qvevri, and is based on the idea behind Les Vignes du Mayne’s Cuvée 910. It’s Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay, and these vary from juice, whole bunch and destemmed grapes, built up layer by layer like a lasagne. There’s also some Pinot Noir. The full qvevri was left a month. Juicy, bright with red apple and cherry. Crunchy and delicious with a nice acid line. Another must buy.
- Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, estate. Whole bunch, then destemmed fruit, then crushed destemmed fruit, added to a tank that first had been flushed with CO2. Left for three weeks. Fresh, pure and supple with red cherry fruit. Pure and expressive with nice crunchy fruit.
- Pinot Noir from Suffolk and Crouch Valley: juicy, fresh and supple with some green notes. Juicy and vivid with good intensity and tart acidity.
- The same wine from barrel: free run into new Stockinger. Very juicy and fine with strawberry, cherry and some creaminess. Has texture here: very fine.
- Domaine Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, free run in barrel. Supple, juicy and vivid with nice purity. Very refined with nice spice. Serious stuff.
- Field blend from the estate block called Coach, which is dubbed Rotwein. Mainly Germanic varieties (such as Regent, Fruhburgunder and Dornfelder), from large oval foudre. Very deep in colour, this is intense, sappy and vibrant with some crunchy structure, a touch of beetroot, and some sour cherry. Interesting.
- Then we tried the first pick from the estate called Field Blend 1, with all the early ripening aromatic white varieties. It’s pretty and lively with a nice acid line and notes of orange peel and table grape. Lovely.
So there will be lots of good things being released next year. But back to 2021 and the current releases.
2021 is a vintage that Ben describes as a pain in the ass, because of the very high acidities. The grapes came in with potential alcohols of 9.5-10%. In contrast, he describes 2018 and 2020 as gifts. ‘In a leaner vintage you need to box clever,’ he says, ‘in order to add texture.’ This meant a lot of skin contact in 2021. The 2022 vintage which we tasted in the winery was easier but mixed: because of the drought, good soils gave good yields but the less good soils gave less.
This is a blend of Auxerrois and Seyval refermented in the bottle at low pressure. This is the follow-on from the Col20 which went mousy and had to be recalled, and for this reason 20 ppm sulfites were added to this wine. Lovely citrus purity: light, gently fizzy with good acidity and nice texture, with a bright lemony finish. 91/100
Tillingham End Grain 2021
A blend of Ortega and Auxerrois, with 2-3 days maceration. Very lively, fresh and linear. Lemony and taut with good acidity and nice focus. Shows purity. 91/100
Tillingham Pinot Blanc NV
This is a blend of the 2020 and 2021 vintages, with the former in barrel, and the latter in barrel and qvevri. This is beautifully fresh and mineral and saline. Lovely acidity, showing real purity. Fine, expressive and refined. 94/100
Tillingham Flor NV
This is the second release of this wine after 2018, which was Pinot Blanc. It’s 100% Chardonnay, but a blend of 2019 and 2020. The 2019 got a bit wild because it wasn’t topped up, and 2020 after 18 months flor balanced it out beautifully. Wonderful aromatics: spicy, mineral, some apple and pear. Tangy and expressive. The palate is racy, salty and tangy with fine spiciness. So lovely with a jingly finish: this may be one of the UK’s very best still wines! 95/100
Tillingham Qvevri White 2021
Direct pressed Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir. Mineral, textured, stony and bright with some lemony notes. Has a stony, mineral edge: still very primary with a lemony finish. Such purity and precision here. 93/100
Tillingham Pinot Noir 2021
Three weeks fermentation in stainless steel, a mix of whole bunch and destemmed. Finishes ferment in barrel. Spicy reduction on the nose. Vibrant and intense on the palate showing nice precision, and in this context of direct berry fruits the reduction works really well. So delicious. 94/100
See also: Vintage at Tillingham, a short film