Fine and unfiltered - Tim Philips of Charlie Herring


Name: Tim Phillips

Vineyard/Winery: Charlie Herring - Hampshire

Position: Founder / Head Winemaker / Vineyard Manager

Grapes: Sauvignon Blanc / Chardonnay / Riesling - grown in a walled garden vineyard in Hampshire

Firstly, what inspired you and essentially led you to the way you work and to start Charlie Herring?

Wine has a unique ability to reflect both time and place – the variety of wines in any wine shop/supermarket always intrigued me. It followed when I came to want to understand this complexity and grow wine that I would want to make a wine that best reflected its site; avoiding modern industrial farming techniques that place less emphasis on this uniqueness was an important first step. The more you investigate the interrelationship between all the elements involved in viticulture, the more sense an organic and biodynamic approach makes.

What is the significance behind the name?

My father used to draw cartoons for us and signed them Charlie Herring. Using the name for my wines recognises that the values I have, and those that Charlie Herring wines represent, are those I learnt from my parents. Charlie Herring is essentially a set of values and to the extent those who drink my wines buy into those values makes them as much Charlie Herring as me.

What principles do you follow within your winery? What style of wine do you ultimately want to produce?

The challenge in wine growing is in the growing – get that right and the task in the winery is not to mess it up! The overall wine philosophy must encompass the whole process, so having grown the best grapes in any given vintage that you can from any given piece of ground, the fermentation and maturation process should allow those grapes to develop the characteristics of the vintage and site. For Charlie Herring that means zero additions prior to bottling, no temperature control and giving the wines time to develop the secondary flavour characteristics that fermentation bestows on the wine.

What are the perceived challenges relating to this type of viticulture / wine production in the UK?

I think the perception of organics/biodynamics in a marginal climate such as ours are that it is nigh on impossible to grow healthy grapes (especially with regard to mildews) and that it is somehow not cost effective. Neither is true!

With more than 500 commercial vineyards currently established in England and Wales, those following Biodynamic or Organic principles are in the minority. How easy could it be for other growers to follow suit and convert?

The key to a Biodynamic/Organic approach is to understand your land and environs. This varies with every single plot of land and as such makes a one size fits all approach difficult, but that is what most typically want. Go for standard and you don’t need to spend time to try and understand the intricacies of what you have. It requires a number of years to achieve and is hard work. No reaching for some chemical at the first sign of a problem – you need to take the time to understand what is happening, and certainly not plant the huge acreage in one go. It took 7 years before I really understood my vineyard to the point I was comfortable with how things worked in that very specific environment, but there are still years of work to do on varieties, trellising etc. The barrier to other growers is one of mentality and scale. When viticulture is practiced on a large scale, understanding the intricacies of a 100+ acre site is a complex task and hence industrial methods tend to prevail.

Natural / minimal intervention wines have a reputation for sometimes being ‘funky’ in flavour in terms of integrated faults, but how easy is it to produce a cleaner, more linear style?

Extremely easy! That some minimal intervention wines have a different flavour profile when compared to more conventional wine styles is as much down to a desire to be different (ie skin contact whites) than down to methods. Having said that faults are still faults and their do tend to be more than their fair share of faulty wines masquerading as “natural”.

Where do you stand on the use of sulphur in your wine making?

Of the 30+ legal additives that you can use with wine, sulphur does seem to get more than its fair share of press. I’m not dogmatic about excluding sulphur from Charlie Herring wines (the Sauvignon Blanc “A Fermament” always gets a small amount at bottling as the bottling process is oxidative) but use it only where needed. If you bring in clean grapes there is no need to add sulphur in the sparkling wine process but if I have a wine that needs some I will use it. The real issue with sulphur in wine is that whilst it is mildly toxic to humans, our bodies can process it quite efficiently in limited quantity (there is more sulphur on a handful of dried apricots than there is in a bottle of wine), but alcohol inhibits our ability to process sulphur hence the negative effect of sulphur in wine.

What about yeast?

I use cultured yeast for secondary fermentation of wine and cider in bottle but don’t want to use it unless I have to in primary fermentations. Again, if you farm grapes industrially then there is good chance that the chemical applications have been detrimental to the natural yeast population so if you are keen on the idea of natural fermentation then you need to work this into you whole winegrowing strategy. There does seem to be a preconception that adding yeast is the norm but go back 30 years and the amount of wine using industrial yeast was in the minority.

How do you feel fermentation / maturation vessels affect the organicity or naturality of a wine? (What do you use and why?)

Cleanliness is key for me so whilst I have an affinity for wood and glass I use a mixture of barrels, plastic eggs, glass carboys and stainless steel variable tanks. With cleanliness a given (hence no quevri) shape and micro-oxygenation are the major considerations in benefiting the wines. Barrels give me micro-oxygenation and an ideal shape for convection of the wine during fermentation and maturation (but need to be kept full year round), plastic eggs give the same characteristics (but with less microx) but crucially can be stored empty when not required, 54L glass carboys give me shape (but no microx) and can be left empty, good for my solera wines and cleaner styles such as Riesling. Stainless variable tanks take up the slack ensuring that all vessels are always full.

What do you think the future is for your style of wine production in the UK and is it sustainable?

I think it is a small but important element of the UK wine scene as it is globally. The breadth of the world wine scene is greater than ever and the mix generates the interest. Failing to learn the lessons of those countries with a much longer wine history would be a mistake for the English wine industry (and on that point whoever put together a regulation that states that Quality English Sparkling Wine can only be made from 3 grape varietals needs to get out a bit more – there is life beyond Epernay!!!?!).

Growing some of the varieties we do is such a challenge so would you say this is sustainable or ethical? Potentially forcing something that really struggles for the sake of being able to produce a wine and potentially harming the environment?

I think the issue here is stewardship of the land as part of any endeavour. This is about long term sustainability as opposed to short term gains. If your processes are harmful to your land and the surrounding environment then you should be thinking long and hard about your choices.

Critical in my view is to experiment; with little or no data ref vines in England surely we should be planting smaller areas to start with, trailling many varietals, trellising etc and see what works before planting more (it’s the exciting bit that our friends in most of France aren’t allowed to do!)? I planted Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc with no idea how they would work out, leaving 40% of the land unplanted for 4 years so I could plant what worked. The results have both confounded my preconceived view, conventional wisdom and final wine choice.

It is also worth understanding what existed on the site you have – that I left the 100+ year old apple orchard intact rather than grub it up for some grand plan has led to a better understanding of many aspects of farming the land, and even making some cider (a great hedge against grapes lost through frost).

What is the ultimate goal for you and Charlie Herring?

To continue to harness the incredible biodiversity we have to grow grapes and produce wines that embody this place. That is a life long study involving some really interesting and inspiring characters returning an incredible sense of well being. What else do you want from life?!