“Tillingham is more than a wine farm”
I’d been hankering to visit Tillingham vineyard in East Sussex for ages. I’d heard many a good thing about their wines, which sounded intriguingly unlike any English wines I’d tried. I finally made it and can report that the place is extraordinary.
It’s not just a winery, of course. Canteen restaurant turns out gorgeous platefuls based on local produce. There’s a wine bar and terrace, 11 bedrooms in a converted hop barn and a handful of bell tents too, plus a covered outdoor eating and party space with built-in pizza ovens. It’s already become a hip weekend destination for clued-up urbanites.
While most English vineyards are making sparkling wine fashioned to a greater or lesser degree on Champagne, the sparkling wines from Tillingham are decidedly not. Their Col’20 is made in the style of artisanal prosecco (col fondo), fermented in the bottle and not disgorged. The blend of Auxerrois, Müller-Thurgau and Chardonnay is cloudy, funky, high in acidity and a billion miles away from the sugary froth we associate with cheap prosecco.
Oh, and a portion of the wine used to make the Col’20 is fermented in earthenware qvevri, the vessels that are used to such positive effect in Georgia and, increasingly, by forward-looking producers elsewhere. It’s rather surprising, shall I say, to see qvevri partially buried in the ground (to maintain an even temperature) in a winery in the heart of the Sussex countryside.
I’d also not seen big, furry Maglenitza pigs wandering about on any of my many, many vineyard visits over the years. The pigs offer another clue to what’s going on here. The pigs’ manure will be used for natural fertiliser that will help to regenerate the soil, and the pigs’ meat will be served to restaurant guests.
Mastermind Ben Walgate explains, “Tillingham is more than a wine farm. It is a holistic farming business which takes produce (grapes, meat, etc) and serves that to its customers. The method of production and the whole ethos is about positive actions, regenerative farming, zero waste, good energy and contentment. We are five years into this journey and we are a few years, still, away from some sort of maturity point or place of balance.”
Tillingham is a young project. The 20 acres of vines were only planted in 2018 so, until they are productive, the winery relies on bought-in grapes. The future plan is to use only estate-grown grapes, biodynamically grown, and the wines made using low-intervention methods.
It’s all hugely ambitious. Walgate clearly has the sort of vision that motivates the likes of Steve Jobs. Where most folk would see obstacles, he sees potential. Others ask "Why," when, I suspect, Walgate asks, "Why not?".
I admire Walgate’s vision and his commitment – and I admire the Tillingham wines, too. Will it be possible to make good wine from organic, biodynamically and regeneratively farmed grapes in a climate as marginal, wet and damp as southern England’s? Who knows.
But you have to admire anyone who has the chutzpah to try, the courage to do things that others don’t consider (or don’t dare).