Walled garden wines

Exploring a 2,000-bottle-a-year vineyard

On Drink

This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

There can’t be many chartered accountants who have raced in the Isle of Man TT but then Tim Phillips from Charlie Herring wines is an unusual man, a beguiling mix of adventure and practicality.

He makes wine organically in a tiny walled garden near the New Forest in Hampshire which conjures up images of The Secret Garden or Le Roman de La Rose. Yet since he acquired it in 2008 the purpose has been to make money. This makes him unusual in English wine, an industry of hopeful investors and patient creditors.

He doesn’t have a tractor or any staff , everything is done by hand by Phillips

The previous owners wanted £1.2 million for the garden but seeing as there were no other interested parties, Phillips got it for £82,500. It was so overgrown that it took him two weeks to get from the door to the far wall.

Once cleared he planted it with Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and, most optimistically, Riesling. After this initial outlay there’s been lots of “sweat and tears” but very little money spent, around £100 per year. He doesn’t have a tractor or any staff , everything is done by hand by Phillips.

He christened it Clos du Paradis, “clos” meaning a walled vineyard in French and “paradis” descended from a Greek word for an enclosed park. It might look picturesque, but it served a practical purpose when it was built in 1820 to provide warmer-climate fruit and vegetables for the family in Ramley House.

It’s aligned 26 degrees off the north-south axis to capture the heat of the summer evening sun. Phillips estimated that within the walls he gets around 1,200 growing degree days compared with 800 outside, though I had to take his word for it on a freezing cold January morning.

This extra warmth means that Phillips can attempt the Holy Grail of English winemaking, Riesling. Many have tried, nobody has succeeded…until now. The difficulty is that Riesling needs a long growing season to ripen fully with plenty of sunlight and ideally no rain, something you get in a continental climate like Alsace and Germany but sadly rarely in England.

Phillips studied winemaking at Elsenberg in South Africa but admits that the English climate took a bit of getting used to. In 2014 and 2015 he lost his entire crop to powdery mildew because he “cocked up”. Other vintages were more successful and went into sparkling wines. Then, in 2020, he managed to get the Riesling grapes sufficiently ripe to make a still wine.

Apparently it tasted spectacular but by the time I arrived it had all been sold. Phillips said demand outstripped supply by a factor of six. He could have charged a lot more for it but prices everything just so that he can make a reasonable living.

He currently makes just 2,000 bottles of wine a year. He doesn’t want to expand wine production but he does have a plan for growth. The walled garden came with a patch of land outside with an overgrown old tennis court. But Phillips also found something much more valuable, apple trees.

He produces a range of ciders including hybrids made with wine or grape skins; these function as an insurance policy, wine that’s not deemed good enough can be blended into cider. Apples make much more sense in England, he told me, each hectare of vines needs 1,000 man hours to produce a crop whereas an apple tree needs 40 minutes. So though he has no plans to plant more vines, he has planted more apple trees.

Some of these are by the Clos du Paradis, others are around the winery which sits in a wood about a mile away. Before we tasted, he gave me a tour of the land nearby. He grows hazel coppices for firewood. Blue jays plant acorns and he pondered on the modest nature of yew trees which makes them last so long compared with the prouder oak.

This is Phillips to a tee, the empirical philosopher. One can imagine him as an early member of the Royal Society, tending his orchards and coming into London to give papers on his experiments with bottle fermentation.

It was time to taste some of his handiwork. Taking care not to trip over the bright red Ducati (below) in the winery, we drank a blend of Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay straight out of the barrel which had a gorgeous purity about it, like a cross between Sancerre and Chablis.

He also let me taste some reserve Chardonnay used in his sparkling wines and a cider fermented on pinot noir skins. “Beaujolais, Charlie Herring style,” he called it. Sadly there was no riesling so instead I bought some cider and a bottle of 2010 Charlie Herring Shiraz that he made in South Africa.

The big question is, who is this Charlie Herring chap anyway? The shadowy money man behind the whole operation? In fact, he’s a nom de plume. The name comes from how Phillips’s father used to sign cartoons. I picture an old school journalist wining away the afternoon in El Vino with Keith Waterhouse but Phillips sees him as a “set of values”. Something labelled “Charlie Herring” could be wine or cider, it could be made in Stellenbosch or Hampshire, but it’s always going to be worth tasting.

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