Summer’s Day at Tillingham Winery

A Snapshot of British Natural Wine and Good Times

I recently took a trip down to Tillingham who’s transparent, mouthwatering, fresh natural wines have been making seismic waves across the natural wine movement both in and outside of the UK since their first vintage, in 2017.

Tillingham is a British natural winery located in East Sussex run by Ben Walgate, someone who’s been part of the wine industry working at bars and shops from London to Newcastle for the best part of a decade and a half. 

Classic (mainstream and/or conventional) winemaking at the best of times can be quite lifeless so throughout his early career Ben had one eye on and always had a curiosity towards alternative winemaking which eventually inspired him to do a tour around Europe’s biodynamic vineyards which then galvanised Ben to get back to England ASAP, where he began buying and selling biodynamic wines before restoring an organic vineyard on the Isle of Wight.

The first ever vines at ‘Tillingham’ were planted in the abundant soils of Sussex back in 2017, and quite like all things great in life, Ben’s healthy vines took time to grow high quality grapes up until this year (2021). Ben and his team have been working as wine negociants buying grapes from nearby local organic vineyards and producing them in a minimal intervention effort all released under the Tillingham label.

How It Started

You just know your day’s going to be an absolute cracker when you wake up in a two bedroom tent, on a sheeted double blow up bed (I know, posh right?). We were camped on a site in Rye which is a cosy little town just next door to what I now know as the ‘Garden of England’ aka Kent. One thing was on my mind from the minute I opened my eyes that morning – Tillingham wine tasting and vineyard tour at two o’clock that afternoon, get in!! 

For a natty wine geek like myself, knowing that you’re about to go see how every little nuance works regarding the production of British natural wine and then taste some of their wines on-site was kinda like waking up a few hours early on Christmas morning kinda vibes. 

It was already twenty five degrees (celcius) by the time we crawled out of our tented palace, a full English fry-up was on the go for roughly 10.00 am and the discreet thumping headache I fostered from the pints of Guinness the night before was just a distant memory. 

Excited as we both were for the unforgettable day ahead, I felt it was necessary to start the day as I meant and cracked open the ‘Amber Revolution’ book by Simon J Wolf to really get the juices flowing when it came to natural wine talk, a fascinating book I would highly recommend that’s completely dedicated to the interesting history of orange wine. 

You already know I was ready to start talking about skin-contact ferments like it was nobody’s business!

Straight away your eyes are met with rows and rows of dazzling, plush looking vines as you approach the front gates of Tillingham, the mood quite quickly changed from anticipation to excitement. In typical biodynamic fashion Ben has all sorts of fauna roaming around the grounds – to the left hand side of the car park there’s a cute family of goats sheltering under a tree from the blistering sunshine which is pushing 30 degrees at this point, then just as you approach the entrance of the main bar behind the winemaking cellar you’ll come across a gorgeous little group of cows grazing on some crispy, warm grass.

The Tour and Tasting

Generally at Tillingham their wine tastings and tours go on for about two hours, so you’ll start things off with an intimate wine tasting in the outdoor barn where the qveriri’s are fermenting skin-contact wines underground. Not that it’s a deal breaker, but I would highly recommend getting yourself down to Tillingham for these kinds of tastings and viewings when the weather is sunny and warm, the scenes on this estate when the sun is shining are mesmerising!

We tried their ‘Rose’, a delicately delicious rustic white wine by the name of ‘Endgrain’, a sparkling wine that was produced from 50% grapes and 50% scraps of various fruits from the trees out on the estate which presented low-key cider vibes and the Tillingham ‘Athingmill’ to finish the tasting off…four absolutely cracking natural wines!

Once the wine tasting is finished and everybody in your small group is feeling a little merrier, the host guides you up into their wine producing cellar where the oak barrels, concrete vessels and steel tanks are kept. One thing that struck me as soon as we stepped foot in the cellar was the collection of empty wine bottles lined up next to each other stretching almost around the whole area of the cellar, you could tell these guys had themselves a good time during harvest season over the years. 

To test everybody’s recent learnings on the difference between oak fermented wine and steel tank fermented wine we all got handed two separate glasses of Tillingham’s ‘20 vintage Pinot Noir…one from oak and the other from steel – I won’t tell you the winners and losers from our session, but make sure to bring your A game when they try catch you off guard, already half drunk with that test, it’s a tricky one for some!

To finish the tour off they take you over to southward facing slopes of young vines which are just a few minutes walk from the cellar. Unfortunately this year’s yield of grapes at Tillingham have suffered massively from Botrytis, a fungal disease that can occur due to harsh growing conditions which puts the grapes under stress and stunts their growth. The positive was that we got to see some of the bunches dangling low from their vines, but a lot had already been wiped out from the disease which was a bit of a shame. 

How To Cap It Off In Style

Once the official two hours of touring and tasting has commenced, it’s time to go back to the bar inside, cool down over a chilled glass of your favourite wine from the day and just soak up the stunning views out back on the vineyard-facing porch. We bought a bottle of the ‘Rose’ and ‘Endgrain’ at the bar inside and to our delight we were told about a secret chill spot that’s right next to the viewing spot at the very back of the estate, 

“It’s just a fifteen minute walk through the vineyards, up and down a couple of hills where you’ll see even more of our grapes and then you’ll have arrived, it’s so beautiful out there”

We eventually stumbled across the secret chill spot after twenty mins of exploring the estate which in our opinion was even better than the viewing spot, it was everything the girl described at the bar and more! It was the most gorgeous, sunset-facing place I’ve ever drank natural wine in my life, hands down. 

If there’s anything you do when you get down to Tillingham, other than drink copious amounts of wonderful British natural wine – it’s got to be to find that chill spot, I can guarantee it’s one of the best parts of the whole experience.

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