“All of the elements—from the grass to the chickens, from the mice to the bees, they are the heartbeat of decent wine. Their presence brings energy.”
“The more time I spend working with vines, the more I become involved with this—”
Tim Phillips points to the ancient hazel trees that border his home. He has recently taken up the art of coppicing.
“Everything that exists here speaks to me. It has been a wonderful journey into things I don’t understand.”
We nod in agreement. Within Nature there are so many complex intricacies that mere mortals cannot comprehend.
We discuss how one of mankind’s fatal flaws is the arrogance of thinking we can know everything. There is humility to be found in the inverse.
Charlie Herring is Tim Phillips. His father used to draw cartoons signed by a fictitious Charlie Herring, but throughout the years, the notion of Charlie Herring has become less fictitious and rather symbolic of a greater purpose in life. Therefore, Tim is Charlie, and you can be Charlie, too.
He grew up here – in Hampshire – not far from where he has settled (somewhat by chance). One day in 2007 he was cycling to his parents’ house and stopped right by a sign advertising a walled garden for sale. He poked his head in and spoke to the owners, who revealed they had just been about to give up and take the sign down due to lack of interest. Was this coincidence or fate? Or was this Charlie Herring’s doing?
This walled garden would become home to one acre of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay and most recently Pinot Noir. It wasn’t so much a walled garden as it was a jungle at the time – having been sold off from the hotel next door in the 70s, it had fallen into marvellous disarray, with several centimetres of topsoil having regenerated over the Victorian tennis court bordering it, and trees and artichoke plants crawling over one another forming a tangled wilderness. It took him two days to get from one side to the other.
But Tim wasn’t always a fully-fledged wine geek, walled garden repairer and conservationist. Once upon a time, he worked in the financial sector of the oil industry. However, a move to Italy and the obligatory wining and dining that comes with the territory made him realise that he was falling for the notion of wine and agriculture than the keyboard and number crunching grind (although the latter has definitely helped him with the business side of things). It was an awakening of sorts, and before he knew it, he was sat in front of his computer, not data crunching but rather researching viticulture and enology degrees around the world. Next, he found himself on a plane to South Africa to commence winemaking studies at Elsenburg Agricultural College, which had been advised to him by his distant cousin, Adi Badenhorst, winemaker in the Swartland.
“Going to Elsenberg was like Jurassic Park. I was their first foreign student, it cost pennies and it was all so practical; designed for farmers’ kids.”
And that was exactly what Tim had been looking for. He was able to immerse himself fully into both winemaking and viticulture, and was in the vines every day. 8am-12pm was spent in the classroom, followed by 1pm-4pm (or later) in the vineyard. Each student was given “their own” four rows of vines to manage, taking the noton of “learning by doing” quite literally.
“We had vines of different ages and were planting vines. You can buy manuals to read about winemaking, but to know how to work in a vineyard you have to physically do it. They let you screw some things up – that’s all part of the learning process.”
Simply looking after his four rows of vines at the college didn’t quite cut it for Tim, so he began working for various growers, including one for whom he planted the Spotswood Shiraz vineyard. He had caught the viticulture bug.
“People thought I was mad for leaving Europe to go and prune in South Africa. They’d look at me like, what’s this guy doing here? I came because I wanted to be a winemaker, but by the time I left I wanted to grow vines.”
In 2005, Tim also travelled to work with Julian Castagna in Beechworth, Australia. Tim bugged him until he eventually succumbed to let him join him. Since, they have remained close friends, with Julian coming to visit from time to time.
Being a winemaker had seemed so alluring and mysterious to Tim, but by this stage he had realised that was the easy part.
“There are all of these ‘Winemaker of the Year’ awards, but really when you make wine you either let the grapes do their thing or you f&*k it up. As a winemaker, you’re at a disadvantage if you haven’t been in the vineyard. You lose a potential of understanding.”
Still working in South Africa at the time, when Tim came back home for a while in 2007, he stumbled upon the aforementioned walled secret garden. It seemed like too much of a sign to ignore. The garden was a short walk from his house, and it had an adjoining section of what once would have once been a lawn with beautiful old apple trees and even a Victorian tennis court buried under several centimetres of topsoil formed from the decades years of being abandoned. It had been sold off from the manor house that sits next door, as the hotel group that had purchased the manor didn’t want the land. Tim got lucky, despite there being quite the mound of work lying ahead.
“It took me two days to get from one side of the walled garden to the other. It had become its own forest. I don’t think it has ever seen a chemical.”
Tim planted his original vines of Riesling, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in 2008 from vine material that came from Germany. Why those varieties? Well, simply put, because he likes them, and because he could see potential for them in this climate and on his gravel soils. Initially, he trained them all quite high made the difficult decision to begin lowering his Sauvignon Blanc plantings from 90cm to 40cm, which involves quite brutal cutting back, but the vines are much happier as a result. Chardonnay and Riesling meanwhile, both grow like crazy, and suit the higher training method better. He jokes,
“There are so many variables. Come back in 300 years and I’ll have it sussed. You have to get to know your vines.”
Many people from within the British world of wine semi-sneered at the notion of planting vines in a walled garden, saying it would be too humid. In reality, the walled garden provides a great little mesoclimate of its own with more degree days, helping the Riesling and Sauvignon to reach ideal ripeness in October, where it might struggle in other cooler spots. Furthermore, it was mysteriously built to optimise sunlight, proving that human beings were able to work this sort of thing out long before we had technology or the internet. People also criticised his decision to grow Riesling, telling him it wasn't feasible. One other vineyard in England also planted the variety, only to rip it out six years later. Tim thinks this was a bad decision.
“You have to mitigate. You have to figure out how to grow. You can’t just give up on your vines. People told me that it wasn’t possible, but it is. You just have to learn how.”
Since day one, he has worked organically. In order to make informed viticultural decisions, he installed a weather station. He also planted with weed suppressing material under the vines, which means he is able to leave grass growing – only the occasional mowing is required here, as any plants that could prove too competitive aren't given the chance to take over. It might be a fairly time consuming and intensive way to “install” a vineyard; but the material lasts for decades (if not longer) and will make for a far easier and simpler way of farming. Mice live under the material, but they don’t cause any problems for the vines – rather Tim is quite fond of them saying they’ll provide food for the local owl population. He takes aspects of biodynamics with regards to his preparations, creating a mix of copper/sulphur, horsetail, nettle, yarrow, willow bark and dandelion, as well as lavender to act as an antiseptic during pruning.
“These are plants that naturally live in areas that have mildew, yet they don’t get it. I’m taking their natural defence to give to the vine. Plants like horsetail teach you that nature can be so powerful. When I discovered it, I thought it was a wonder drug, but it’s a hard-ass plant that takes no prisoners. It’s been with us since the time of the dinosaurs for a reason. If you use too much it can actually destroy the microbiome.”
Nature at Charlie Herring
He sprays via a backpack eighteen times a year, and thanks to the plant preps has managed to significantly lower the amount of copper he uses.
“I don’t wear a face mask when I spray – if I felt like I had to wear one, well, then I shouldn’t be putting it on the vines.”
The walled garden is not just a new home for a vineyard. It also contains a lovingly restored Victorian greenhouse, home to various vegetables. The garden is also home to chickens, which fertilise the vines naturally and provide him with eggs for his family to eat, as well as various shrubs and old plants, including artichokes that seem to have survived and propagated themselves since the Victorian times. Unlike many other viticulturists, Tim leaves some of the stray plants. He points to them, saying,
“I couldn’t have a vineyard and just see vines. Vines need other plants. My wine will be better because of the trees and the shrubs nearby. Why? These are things that perhaps we don’t understand, but they expand your mind.”
He mentions that others keep asking when he’ll plant another vineyard – either in the adjacent half orchard, half wild meadow plot, or next to his house in his own garden. He has a twinkle in his eye as he looks at us,
“The hazel trees and all this wildlife is just as important to me as my vines. For the vines, for the wines, and for my own mental health. Having trees make you look up, instead of looking down.”
It’s a simple statement but one that rings true. It is not just about the vineyard, just like it’s not just about the wine. These hazel trees and the art of coppicing bring him great joy, and he’s able to use the wood for heating his home and his winery. In addition, there is a local woman who keeps bees on the property. She manages them and gives Tim some honey, and the bees invigorate the entire ecosystem.
It doesn’t stop there. From the handle of old apple trees in the meadow-meets-orchard next to the walled garden, Tim can make an astonishing 2,000 bottles of cider in a good year. Apple trees are not to be underestimated. He also discovered some wild hops growing in one of the coppice trees, which he forages to make beer. It’s a never-ending quest for discovery and learning from nature. In doing so, he’s also able to make a living for himself and his family. It might not be millions, but he’s not looking for millions.
“I believe in peasant economics. This isn’t a hobby. If I do everything myself, I don’t have a wage bill. I do every part of what goes into the bottle. That’s my only rule.”
He explains that too often in the world of wine, everyone wants to be big. As such, it becomes a mushroom, with too much money being spent for not much to come out.
“Everyone focuses on tons of fruit per acre, but really it should be the profit per acre. If my young daughter decides she wants to carry all of this on, then it has to be financially sustainable.”
For the time being, she is out looking for fairies in the woods. We smile as we nod emphatically that fairies do exist, after all. Tim smiles, adding,
“Yes. All that magic you have as a child when you play in the woods gets beaten out of you when you become an adult. But by spending time in nature, and by seeing how my daughter interacts with it, I’ve started to rediscover it myself.”
“All of the elements – from the grass to the chickens, from the mice to the bees, they are the heartbeat of decent wine. Their presence brings energy.”
As opposed to placing too much of a winemaker’s stamp on his wines, he rather guides them and makes decisions that are influenced by the wines’ own development and journey. This means the Charlie Herring cuvées often come in small batches, and often with no pre-warning. New releases are a surprise—even down to the older vintages of his South African wines which he releases when he feels they are ready.
From one week to the next, a wine might suddenly change and the time for bottling arise. Tim’s job is to listen to the barrels and bottles and to decipher when this moment rears its head.
All the wines are fermented naturally, and bottled unfined and unfiltered. He destems using simple crates, and adds some small quantities of SO2. Some years, if the fruit speaks to him, he decides to make skin-contact versions, such as the Fermament Sauvignon Blanc (which is distinguishable from its non-skin contact partner only due to its yellow wax top) – which he made in 2013, 2017 and 2018. There is no rhyme or reason to the amount of time it spends with the skins. In 2017, he had five days of skin contact in mind, but all of a sudden five days turned into almost three months. That's how the wine wanted it.
He has gained a particular reputation for his sparkling wines. Inspired by the great Anselme Selosse - who he had the chance to visit before his retirement - he began a Chardonnay solera seven years ago.
“A solera becomes the vineyard without the vintage; the vines without the weather.”
His sparkling Riesling and Chardonnay wines tend to spend three to four years bottle ageing – but again, it is always the wine that decides, never Tim. Instead of adding sugar for his liqueur de tirage, he adds grape juice from some Chardonnay he grows in his greenhouse.
It doesn’t stop at wine: with the apples from Tim’s orchards he also makes a cider. He wasn’t content with the first examples.
“The first cider I made was f*^&king boring. But then I read about Stolen Roses, and thought s&%t – I need to get a bottle of this. It did my head in!”
Now, inspired by that bottle, he creates an incredibly complex wine-meets-apple blend of apple juice fermented on grape pomaces with some juice remaining inside: a nod to the old Italian vin ëd pom which Deirdre Heekin of La Garagista revived. It allows him to logically transport the phenols of the grapes to the cider. It is named Perfect Strangers in homage to Kate Tempest.
Meanwhile, from foraged wild hops, he also creates a beer – although he’s still figuring out whether this will continue. There are many ideas, but slightly less space in his mind for those that don’t involve grape juice.
As for the future? Well, there is a section of baby Pinot Noir vines planted in May 2020. So, there is an English red on the horizon for the first time – but as ever, it will require patience. As we depart, Tim says,