In conversation… with Tiléri Charles-Jones

How did you get started in viticulture?

When I was 20, I worked for Mark Savage MW and Stephen Eggerton in Northleach where I learnt a great deal about wines from all over the world. I headed out to Reschke Vineyard in Coonawarra to gain some hands-on experience and that’s where I met the viticulturist, Mary Kennedy who became a dear friend and mentor. I was truly thrown in at the deep end and adored it. I worked in wineries but kept finding the outdoors and vines too much to resist. I love the unpredictability of viticulture and the fact that ultimately Mother Nature has the final say – you can do what you can to protect the vines but there is only one true boss!

Can you sum up Poulton Hill in just 50 words? 

Poulton Hill is a 3.5-hectare, family-run vineyard in the Cotswolds. We are a small team and produce a range of still and sparkling wines and spirits. Passionate about what we do, we encourage people to visit to see the vines where we work hard to produce our delicious wines.

Why do you think viticulture attracts so many families?

With the climate changing and improving for us, vineyards are now a viable business option which can be handed down through the generations, appealing to all ages and a wide demographic. This industry is seen as a very romantic way of life and it is deeply rewarding, but when people begin, they are often not aware of how time, labour and cost intensive it is.

What are your hopes for the season ahead? 

This year we are hoping to have another record-breaking harvest. We have grown year on year since 2016, with the tonnage up from 8.3 tonnes to 22 tonnes in 2018. Our main focus is growing for quality over quantity so if this means taking out fruit and sacrificing the record attempt to reach the optimum sugar and acidity levels, then we do this without hesitation. We had to last year with our Seyval blanc due to the leaf-bunch ratio being completely out. 

What is your favourite job on the estate? 

I love our vines from root to tip and the varied jobs that come with them. I love everything from the winter pruning in -6°C to the gentle tucking-in and canopy management in the height of summer. It’s an incredible feeling seeing them grow and develop over the months and watching the grapes being carted off to the winery. It’s like watching your child grow up and before you know it you’re nervously watching them head off for their first day at school. It’s a mixture of pride, anxiety and impatience to hear the final sugar and acidity readings when the grapes are in the press.

And the worst?

When I joined the team at Poulton Hill, all our wines were labelled by hand. Natalie Murphy, our assistant manager, and I would sit opposite each other in the freezing cellar with a heater under our legs labelling bottle after bottle, after bottle…Thankfully we only have a few hundred half bottles of our sparkling rosé to label by hand, so the end is in sight.

How do you get your wines to market?

Natalie and I go out with samples and price lists and head to different pubs, restaurants, hotels and farm shops in the area and introduce ourselves. We also attend local markets and events to showcase our products. We have become known for our quality products locally and while we are still working hard to get our name out there, we have been fortunate enough to receive local and national press attention which has helped tremendously.

Do you have a market in mind when you are crafting your products? 

We are expanding our range to try to meet demand, working with our contract wine makers, Three Choirs, to produce a medium/dry white wine which we have not done before. When we are looking at our portfolio we take into account what businesses there are around us. Here there are quite a few gastro pubs, hotels, farm shops and wedding venues so we try to produce wines suited to their needs.

What is the biggest challenge of working with the trade?

While we work very closely with all our clients, product positioning and food-wine matching is difficult. We offer staff training on a very personal level for all our clients either here at the vineyard or in-house with their teams to help tackle these situations. Wine education is key because the more our clients know about us the more enthused they are about our wines which translates to higher sales.

Name one interesting fact about Poulton Hill the trade can quickly share with consumers.

It is a two-girl team and we do everything by hand from working in the vineyard to delivering and staff training for clients. We have a combined height of 10ft so the topping is a bit tricky.

What key food pairings would you recommend to your on-trade customers? 

Our white wines are particularly versatile, for instance, the Bacchus is delicious with smoked salmon, our Phoenix stands up well to mild spices and creamy chicken dishes and the Special Reserve White can cut through fatty pork belly and hold its own with chorizo tomato dishes. All our sparkling wines are fabulous with fish and chips but also cheeses. 

How would you describe English/Welsh wine as a category? 

As a clear threat to old and new world wine producers! Our cool climate wines may have a lower alcohol level, but our wines show their grape characteristics.  We are producing a huge range of styles suiting the everyday drinker to challenging the most discerning palate.  

What is the biggest issue facing the UK wine industry? 

We rely heavily on EU workers throughout the year and with the possibility of movement restrictions being put in place, staff costs will increase, and knowledgeable, experienced teams will be harder to find.

Does English Sparkling Wine need a new identity?

You have Prosecco, Cava, Champagne etc.  What about us? English sparkling wine producers have been searching for a catchy generic name to signify prestige and reflect its ever-increasing high standard for years now. We have called our sparkling wines ‘Bulari’ which is derived from the Latin word bullarum, which means bubbles. We’ve had mixed responses to this name, but the majority are positive. “Could I have a glass of Bulari please?” rolls off the tongue nicely, and our local clients order it by the name without hesitation.  

Do producers need to offer more than just wine? 

English wine is still ‘becoming known’ and by offering tours, tastings and an experience at the vineyard we are raising awareness, educating and taking consumers out of their comfort zone. It gives them an opportunity to try wines they wouldn’t normally choose and discover that the UK offers a wide range. If we offer more, then curiosity can be converted to avid followers and long-term buyers and supporters.

What advice would you give to those looking to get into the UK viticulture industry?

Be prepared for hard work, trying times and challenges thrown at you by Mother Nature. If you like to be in complete control, then perhaps it’s not quite the industry for you! Most of all, you need to have patience and passion as this is not a short-term industry.   

Finish this sentence: In ten years’ time…

…I hope the UK wine industry is highly regarded, widely drunk and firmly established as a front runner.

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