Former Gusbourne CEO making English wine in qvevri

Ben Walgate, the former chief executive of Gusbourne in Kent, is working on his own biodynamic project in Sussex that includes natural wines aged in Georgian qvevri.

Gusbourne’s former CEO, Ben Walgate, has branched out with his own natural wine project in East Sussex

As reported by Doug Wregg in The Buyer, Walgate is working with Ortega bought from local growers near his farm in Peasmarsh, East Sussex.

He chose Ortega due to its aromatic character and the fact that it ripens well in Sussex. The grapes are de-stemmed and food trodden twice a day for four days.

Ready to be buried. Photo credit: Les Caves de Pyrène

The juice is then pressed off its skin and the qvevri are filled with the skins and the juice with a skin to juice ratio of 1:5. Walgate only works with natural yeasts.

“My big worry when choosing the variety for a skin-contact wine is having too high acidity and picking up unripe tannins or flavours in the wine,” Walgate told The Buyer.

He has started work on five acres of land within his 70-acre farm in preparation for planting next May, sowing a cover crop of mustard, vetch and radish and applying lashings of horn manure.

Inspired by Alice Feiring’s book on Georgian wine, the Plumpton graduate bought a 400 and a 200-litre qvevri, which he buried in an open-sided cart shed in an oast house, dressing the ground with shingle from the local beach.

“The ability to communicate terroir, to capture a sense of place, a whiff of time and intention, has always struck a chord with me.

“To be a part of a year in a place, to work in rhythm with the seasons, and to be tuned in to the energy of a place – and that be manifest in a glass – is an intoxicating prospect,” he told The Buyer.

Walgate plans to use the oast house as a qvevri cellar and a place to make his biodynamic preps and is currently experimenting with a number of different wine styles.

The Ortega grapes working their magic. Photo credit: Les Caves de Pyrène

He adds small amounts of sulphur on bottling when necessary but is sad that this has become the norm in winemaking as he’d rather let the wine speak for itself.

“You don’t need any additions with good clean fruit from healthy vines. It’s a sad state of affairs that additions are the norm.

“These additions are so entrenched in modern winemaking, that to opt out might be viewed as being negligent, or at best, cavalier,” he told The Buyer.

Walgate describes the qvevri as “a revelation”, revealing that the wine “just about made itself”.

In addition to Ortega, he makes Chardonnay on the farm, is about to bottle a pink pet nat, and is working on a still rosé. He’s starting small, and will only be releasing batches in their hundreds.

On the subject of the English wine industry, Walgate worries that there isn’t enough diversity in the output at the moment.

“I’m concerned that that the industry is far too fixated with sparkling wine: the vast majority of what is being produced is basically Champagne.

“There isn’t enough interesting terroir being farmed, or if it is interesting, then it’s being farmed in such a way that the sense of terroir isn’t emerging in the wine itself,” he said.

“I feel there are a lot of vineyards that are a means to an end, or have been planted with convenience preceding quality. With the right varieties and the right approach we have the potential to produce sensational still wines with real perfume and elegance, but site selection is important,” he added.

In addition to grape growing Walgate will farm livestock at his East Sussex site and is looking into creating accommodation on the farm to make the most of the trend for agritourism.

Walgate isn’t the first to make an English wine in amphora. In June Westwell winery in Kent released 685 bottles of Ortega fermented in a terracotta amphora priced at £13.45 each. John Rowe, the owner and winemaker at the estate, commissioned the amphora from Artenova near Florence.

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