I originally intended to speak to Tim Phillips, one-man-band at the helm of Charlie Herring wine, about his experience working with Riesling in England. Anybody who knows me knows all too well that I’m a Riesling junkie, such that this prospect alone was sufficient cause for excitement. However, what I got from speaking to Tim was so much more. I have previously expressed concern around the challenge of oversupply in the English wine industry. If the industry is to maintain long-term viability and achieve truly global appeal, more of the norm simply won’t do. We must push boundaries, we must exploit the opportunity afforded to us as a new world producer not bound by the complexities of intricate regulation. In a tiny 1 acre walled garden in the south of England, aptly named Clos du Paradis, Tim Phillips tends to a petri dish of exciting, exploratory winemaking.
Tim hasn’t always been a winemaker, for several years he worked in the oil industry. Whilst living in Rome, Italy, working on a finance-related project (a background that later proved useful in balancing the books) he underwent an epiphany. Shortly after, in 2002, Tim moved to Stellenbosch, South Africa, to study at Elsenburg as a mature student. At Elsenburg, he learned the practical skills required to make wine, he studied in the morning and tended to 16ha in the afternoon. Following harvest, he and his fellow students may oversee 27 wines, they were allowed to make mistakes (Tim recalls adding ten times too much sulfur to a tank of Chenin Blanc) such that they would never repeat them.
In 2005, Tim left Stellenbosch for Australia, where he worked for biodynamic winemaker Julian Castagna. Castagna made his first vintage in 1998 and now, with the help of his son Adam, makes increasingly precise finely-tuned wine. Here, everything Tim had learned, was thrown out the window and he benefitted from an additional perspective.
Between 2006 and 2015, Tim travelled to South Africa where he made wine which he then sold in the UK. It was during this time he picked up some much-needed sales and marketing abilities. In between this period, in 2008, whilst out riding his bike in Southern England, he stumbled across an old wall garden. The garden belonged to an estate sold to a large hotel chain in the 70s, it had been left untouched for 35 years. Whilst many would have seen a desolate patch of land, Tim saw an opportunity.
The 1-acre gravel soil site near New Forrest, 1 mile from the sea, experiences brilliant levels of UV and benefits from a nearby rain shadow, so much so that it experiences 200mm less rain annually than nearby Southampton.
Despite there being no slope, the walled garden, built-in 1820, retains warmth, an intuitive engineering breakthrough of yesteryear. Walled gardens are enclosed primarily for horticultural rather than security purposes, in temperate climates, the function of the walls is to shelter the garden from wind and frost, whilst raising the ambient temperature usually by at least several degrees compared to directly outside the garden. Walls are usually constructed from stone or brick, which absorb and retain solar heat and then slowly release it, allowing peaches, nectarines, and grapes to be grown as far north as southeast Great Britain. These walled gardens allowed the upper class to indulge in their favourite decadence year-round. From a weather station in the vineyard, Tim has calculated he experiences 1150 growing degree days as opposed to 850 outside the clos.
2010 was Tim’s first vintage, although between 2010 and 2017 are referred to as his bootleg years, for reasons we shall not share. Production has remained small and almost all it sold on a single open day at Tim’s property. A relatively intuitive approach to DTC. `
In the vineyard
12 years after purchasing the site, the last of his available space has recently been planted with Pinot Noir. Tim was recently offered a small number of Pinot vines and could not resist planting a corner of Paradis with this troublesome variety. The rest of the site is planted to Riesling, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. As am I, Tim is befuddled as to why people aren’t exploring with other varieties in England. There can be a temptation to go with what seems commercially successful; however, challenges of oversupply may favour those who position themselves in a more varied segment of the market. Regardless of variety, the vines are of no particular clone, Tim sought variety, where necessary he now propagates his own vines from massal selection to bolster disease resistance and avoid monoculture.
The vines are planted relatively densely, a practical decision based on available space, (roughly 1350 vines) on single cordon, slightly at odds with much of England’s plantings, with all vineyard work completed manually. Tim opts to farm biodynamically and works to what he calls peasant economics. He maintains a production size that he is able to maintain independently. Of course, this may not be practical for all, particularly those who wish to produce on a much larger scale. That being said, what it is, and what excites me most about Charlie Herring, is that this walled garden is a microcosm of what can be extrapolated on a larger scale in terms of diversity and experimenting with new techniques and varieties in order to strengthen the performance of the English wine category overall.
As a farmer, Tim works in the context of maximising profit per acre whilst always retaining the quality and a sense of pride in his work. He picks material for spray from local hedgerows, spends roughly £14 per year on lavender, £50-60 per year on fuel for a back-mounted sprayer, and the majority of his budget (£1-200) on broken posts. As a vigneron he is humble, as I asked him about his vineyard he was clear that this was trial and error, if I really wanted to know when it was right I ought to come back in 300 years, then he will hopefully have gotten things right.
Let’s talk Riesling
Several years ago Rathfinny planted 6ha of Riesling in England, they later ripped these vines out after 3 years. Despite not wanting the focus of this article to be solely on Riesling I couldn’t resist delving into Tim’s thoughts on the grape’s place in the UK.
He tells me that although we share latitude with many regions notorious for growing great Riesling, we do not share climate. Our maritime influences can present problems as opposed to the continental climate afforded to Germany and Alsace. However, Riesling is less susceptible to powdery mildew than Chardonnay, less sickly in general, and buds later so suiting challenges associated with the English climate. That being said it can be difficult to ripen, particularly where it is vigorous, Tim tells me you have to wait for ripeness and hold your nerve, he picks Riesling in November, typically 3 weeks later than everything else.
In 2010,11 and 12, unimpressed with it as a standalone crop, Tim chucked the riesling in with his Chardonnay. In 2013 he opted to make a sparkling Riesling, it spent 4 years on lees and saw very little sugar. He found that with 3 years on lees the wine was good, but it took a long time to really open up. Tim felt that if he had released the wine after 18 months on the lees it would be a little reductive and backward. Whilst this length of time may make a similar project difficult for many, this kind of product differentiation is a key economic principle in surviving in a market characterised by over-supply. Wineries like Blackbook and Tillingham are differentiating themselves in a somewhat similar manner with relative success.
I asked Tim whether he would consider making a still Riesling. He tells me that 10 years ago his response may have been different, but who knows, 1 degree is a huge increase in viticultural terms and there’s certainly no reason to suggest we may not be able to produce extremely good examples in the coming years.
In the winery
In his 7x9m winery half a mile away he opts for spontaneous fermentation, no addition of yeast, and keeps cost to a minimum by capping his sparkling opposed to corking. The winery sits on a 5acre plot of land where Tim also has an apple orchard that boasts 150-year-old trees, bees, and chickens which he cares for.
‘I want to be proud of the wine, not just to make good wine’
Tim is a man of practically, he works primarily with steel tanks, he says a large number of wooden barrels would be difficult to manage, all he has in the form of wood are two barrels, one 225l and one 100l, some of which he uses for a solera-style Chardonnay. Whilst he admits there’s a certain allure to things like amphoras, he asks how he would manage them? How would he keep them clean? Practicality supersedes aesthetics in all things at Charlie Herring.
We both agree that embracing acidity is paramount. Many of the English wines I’ve tasted where attempts to mask acidity have been made in the winery have felt clunky and awkward. Acidity ought to be managed in the vineyard and embraced in the winery. This philosophy has been key to the success of Simpson’s Chardonnay, which hides behind nothing.
In addition to solera-style Chardonnay and sparkling Riesling, as if that wasn’t enough, he is also exploring the possibility of orange wine from Sauvignon, an exciting prospect.
Whilst he has more land, Tim has no plans to plant any more vines, doing so would mean he would no longer be able to manage them himself, and his peasant economics business model would collapse. He does plan to release a diffusion label, titled Charlie Don’t Surf, which will be made from grapes he doesn’t grow.
We spoke about the industry, which we both agreed had become much more mainstream than it was 2/3 years ago, more so than anyone may have assumed. But this comes with challenges, pricing suppression will undoubtedly be one of them, many of the wines on the market are very similar, variation and exploration will be key in achieving supernormal profit in the long run.
I was inspired by Tim, not only did he uproot his life to pursue his dream but he has maintained his own values and vision throughout. He is pushing boundaries and exploring the possibilities of English viticulture in a way that ought to inspire a generation of English winemakers. This market can be great, if we think outside the box, do things differently, and buck the status quo, Tim is a testament to this.