At the start of this growing season, the idea that 2018 could be the greatest vintage English Wine had ever seen, seemed unlikely: frosts had affected a number of vineyards and the prospect of another year where grapes would be in short supply seemed inevitable. In the end the opposite was true. Due to phenomenally good weather at flowering (mid-June) followed by a fantastic summer, not only was there a very large harvest, but one that would be picked relatively early and with above average ripeness.

As our vines were only planted in late May this year – we are reliant on buying grapes from a number of loyal local vineyards, and this year we added a couple more, including one Biodynamic vineyard (yay!). We had concerns with our own plantings, with no rainfall for over 8 weeks from planting. We held off from watering the vines, and hope that despite showing very little foliage, they got their roots down deep which will stand them in good stead for next season.

The amount of grapes produced this year in the UK was extraordinary, sadly, there were stories of grapes being left out for the birds, as every winery in England had reached maximum capacity, even with some making use of milk tankers and gigantic bag in box containers. Thankfully earlier this year, we managed to secure some EU funding through Defra and ordered a raft of new tanks. We also received a shipping container with 12 new Qvevri from Georgia. Due to delays in shipping, both the tanks and the Qvevri didn’t turn up until the middle of harvest, at times it was touch and go whether we would run out of space or not, and thanks to one of our growers, we managed to find some temporary capacity when things got tight.

In the end we made wine from a total of 10 vineyard sites and 13 grape varieties, and at times we had up to 30 different fermentations on the go. We pushed things more than we did last year, much more skin contact, carbonic maceration, zero sulphur, red wines and orange wines. The winery is packed to the rafters, and now most of the wines have finished their ferments and have started to settle, the true nature of the wines and of the vintage start to really reveal themselves. As a result of how good the vintage was, the innate quality of the wines across the board is really impressive, and thankfully, despite taking more risks with the wine making and biting off more than we could chew at times, we haven’t diminished any of the latent potential that the grapes had when they arrived.

Now we have to bide our time and watch the wines develop over the winter and into the spring and then gently start to shepherd the wines into bottle.

The first 6 acres of vines were successfully planted this week, a major milestone in the story of Tillingham, it marks the 2 years of planning to reach this point, as well as the exciting prospect of the grapes to come in 3 years from now.

I wanted to talk about the immediate build up to this moment, the way we have prepared the soil and the choices taken, which are part of a bigger picture and a cornerstone of our approach. The fields here have been farmed conventionally over the generations, our turn as custodians began in September last year. Although we have interesting soils and geology literally protruding through the top soil, the organic matter levels were low and the soil needed a helping hand. We introduced a large amount of compost and manure in addition to some trace elements: Boron, Zinc, Sulphur, Molybdenum and adjusted the soil pH with lime. The reason for this intervention of sorts is to help the soil get back to something it resembled prior to the industrialisation of agriculture, it’s not just about the elements and pH though….

In the wild, vines thrive in soils that are rich in humous and organic matter, and with extraordinary concentrations of soil microbes, this soil supports them as they climb over trees and shurbs to reach sunlight. In this humid and tangled environment their immune system works in conjunction with the microbially rich soil beneath their feet. An arable soil with a monocultural approach, is an alien environment for a vine, that’s why boosting organic matter and providing the right conditions for microbial life both above and below the soil are so important to us.

Using BD500, the Biodynamic preparation of manure fermented in the ground in a cow horn, is a way of seeding and re-awakening the microbial populations that would have been rife in these soils once upon time. Establishing cover crops last autumn, before direct drilling additional cover crops alongside the baby vines, will help to provide additional root habitats in the soil for the colonisation of microbes that will support the nutrition and immune responses of the vine. Which in turn will reduce if not eliminate the vines’ reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

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