It’s one thing coming up with the idea of creating an English Pet Nat wine and your own version of Ortega made by fermenting it in a Georgian qvevri in a quiet Sussex vineyard, it’s quite another getting people to sell such wines, never mind one as established as Les Caves de Pyrene. But for Ben Walgate his, up to now, Tillingham Wines project is alive and kicking with the early release of his wines selling like “hot cakes” to leading restaurants and independent wine merchants who have been captured by the “human face” of an English wine story says Les Caves’ Doug Wregg.
We first visited Ben Walgate and his new English wine project – with a very big difference – last October. Here Doug Wregg re-visits Walgate and his winery to assess the wines with his buyer’s hat on for Les Caves de Pyrene and is even more excited about the innovative winemaking taking place in a remote part of Sussex.
Things are moving ahead at Ben Walgate’s still nascent Tillingham Wines business. Since our first article, Walgate has released his Pet Nat rosé, called PN17, into the market. Two Ortegas, one fermented in stainless tanks, the other in the buried Georgian qvevri, will shortly be bottled and released. The former has appealing fleshy fruit aromas and flavours, whereas the qvevri wine has a spicy, phenolic texture and a distinctive nuttiness care of a yeast flor that formed in the vessel during the wine’s maturation.
There is a third white made from 100% Chardonnay, fermented in two fine-grained Burgundy barrels. This will be assembled, bottled, and left to compose itself on its lees for around six months, before release.
We have decided to take on all three wines at Les Caves de Pyrene and the first release, the Pet Nat, has already sold across the board. Independent retailers such as Vino Vero, Solent Cellar, Handford Fine Wines, Harvey Nix, small restaurants like The Laughing Heart, Pea Porridge, Terroirs (naturally), and we have loads of back orders. We sold our initial allocation in three days, which must be some sort of record!
The power of social media, plus the highly original notion of a refreshing Pet Nat from England, plus telling the story both on our own blog, and on The Buyer in October, all combined to produce sales momentum. There is a big demand for English wines, but not just more sparkling wines which might be a little bit better or little bit worse than the average Champagne, but something with a human face.
Which in Ben Walgate’s case takes us to a house in Peasmarsh, East Sussex that Ben Walgate is about to move into. A house that appropriately enough has a wild vine growing on the outside. This year it has yielded a surprisingly big crop of, as yet unidentified, red grapes. Its unruly fruitfulness seems somehow symbolic of the wine adventure that Walgate is embarking on, a mixture of detailed planning and last-minute improvisation.
The hub of the project, a house and various outbuildings, is situated off a winding lane, amidst fields and copses on a slope leading town to the Tillingham River which meanders down to Rye. Walgate’s plan is to plant a vineyard next to a winery, and bring in ancillary income eventually by means of renting out accommodation, opening a restaurant, conducting wine tours and generally revitalising the remainder of the farm (some 70 acres in total).
Work in progress
The home vineyard is a work in progress. Organic compost has been applied to five acres of former pasture, cover crops – radish, mustard and vetch have been sown, and the headlands and surrounding areas have been planted with a mix of rye and clover to help with soil structure, whilst sheep will be introduced into these areas in the spring, and the first biodynamic prep (500) has already been applied in order to engender greater microbial life in the soil.
“Getting the soil food web working is a top priority, using biodynamic preps and having started our own compost making, using the discarded grapes etc. from the winery, will all help switch on the microbes!” he says.
He will this year plant different varieties in three different blocks, so as to get a feel for each distinct terroir before further planting. These varieties will include Ortega, Siegerebe, Bacchus with Gamay, with low-yielding Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the warmer spots. The vines will be predominantly south-facing, which is ideal, as it allows for an even distribution of sunlight each side of the canopy. He will also plant one south-east facing site in May 2018.
It will be 2020 before these vines yield usable grapes (all being well). In the meantime, Walgate will continue to source grapes from local vine growers.
Move to biodynamics
His interest in biodynamics, inspired by a tour of Burgundy, galvanised a desire to work according to natural precepts in the winery, and a conversation with John Wurdeman of Pheasant’s Tears at the 2017 Real Wine Fair in London, spurred Walgate to order two qvevri from Georgia in which he would be able to ferment some wine. After the terracotta pots (one 200-litre, the other 400-litre) were delivered to the farm – the day before harvest – they were buried in holes excavated in the ground with a micro-digger, under an oast house adjacent to the main winery building.
The ground around the buried qvevri was strewn with shingle from Dungeness; the vessels themselves topped with oak lids, and subsequently sealed to the lip of the jars with damp clay.
Walgate removes the lid of the larger of the two qvevri, and we peer into its mouth. He plunges his wine thief through the thick cap of brownish-green skins, draws out some turbid yellow liquid and decants it into our waiting glasses. The wine is cool and earthy with a gentle clasp of tannin, brimming with vitality. It tastes of the earth. Simply delicious.
He explains: “We destemmed [the Ortega grapes] into 500l vats and blanketed with CO2 before covering. Every morning and evening I would do punchdowns, barefoot. Before blanketing and putting the lids back on, I started pressing after four days with a 250l vertical basket press. The pressed juice was then split into thirds, one third to barrel, a third to stainless steel and the final third to qvevri. The qvevri was filled with 15% unpressed skins prior to filling with juice. The ferments all began naturally about a day after pressing. No sulphur was added at any point, and to this day has not been added.”
The Pet Nat
Finally, we taste Walgate’s Pet Nat (called PN 17), a blend of Dornfelder and Ortega with some unfermented Pinot Noir added to complete the Pet Nat in a single fermentation. The combination works extremely well. Walgate had sourced some “lovely Dornfelder” from a local vineyard and originally hoped to make a red in qvevri, but with the grape acids too high he decided it would be better suited for a Pet Nat.
“I loved the Ortega so much I thought it would be a nice addition to the Dornfelder. By the time bottles arrived and we were ready to bottle the Pet Nat, the Dornfelder and Ortega (which were early) had fermented to dryness. The last grapes to come in were Pinot Noir for sparkling, and as this ferment was still ticking along, I incorporated a portion of this to give the ‘pet’ back to the ‘nat’!”
The Ortega provides excellent aromatics, the red grapes in the blend more substance. Overall, the wine exhibits vinosity, as well as drinkability. The bubbles are soft, the colour dark-pink, and the exuberant aromas of wild strawberry, pink grapefruit, lychee lead to a juicy-peachy mouthfeel with a refreshing aftertaste and a touch of soda sweetness (the wine is still fermenting).
And the number of bottles produced of this fizzy beast? 667!
There are only a handful of vineyards in England that are farmed organically, and even fewer producers making quality wines using native yeasts and low intervention in the winery. Will Davenport in Rotherfield, East Sussex; Tim Phillips at Charlie Herring Wines in Hampshire and Ancre Hill Wines in Monmouth are amongst the few adopting a whole-hearted natural approach in the way they work.
Ben Walgate is on a steep learning curve and the fruit from his biodynamic vineyards is a few years from coming into play, but, on the basis of an initial tank/qvevri sample tasting, it looks like he also will be making some first-class artisan natural wines in the intervening period.