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Hall's fold in the Downs

Hall’s fold in the Downs

There’s a vividness that you get from writing something immediately.  A clarity of lines; a sureness about the colours of a memory.  But there’s something valuable too about leaving an experience to sit for a bit.  Might we say, on the lees?

This is just what I have done with my trip to Breaky Bottom – a little treat that I had been promising myself for a good long time.  In fact, ever since I met the vineyard’s owner Peter Hall at Glyne Food & Wine Festival a couple of summers back.

The beauty of Peter’s little holding is breathtaking.  You turn off the Newhaven Road and wend your way up a farm track.  Up and up.  Past horses grazing.  ‘Come up about a mile and there’s a fork in the road.  Get yourselves over the cattle grid and you’re there.’

It says on the back of the bottle of his 2007 Cuvée Francine – the Seyval Blanc and Chardonnay blend that I took away with me – that the vineyard ‘was established in 1974 in a beautiful isolated fold in the Sussex Downs.’  It’s a perfect description.  You come over the lip of the hill.  Mustard colour fields patterned with hedges.  Sheep here and there.  And this little plot down in the dell, before more hills roll away to the sky.  Two very small, manicured fields of vines either side of an olden cottage and barns (if memory serves).  With a tyre-swing tied to a tree on the approach, and a vegetable garden, and a lovely spot to sit in the back yard.  A Hansel and Gretel cottage of English Wine.

And then there’s Peter Hall.

A raconteur, bon viveur; obvious entrepreneur.  Who dips in and out of fluent French – his mother’s tongue – as we speak about wine and travelling and how he has hardly left his pig farm-turned-vineyard in 40 years.  Only once, to Switzerland he says, to the funeral of a great Dutchman friend.  Never to Champagne – the geological and viticultural confrère of his South Downs home.

He speaks with passion about Seyval Blanc, the grape that has flourished best in his vineyard; how he knew that it would take to bubbles.

He has the commitment of the artisan to his craft – up at 4am that morning, spraying the vines, after an evening of labeling by hand.  Something which would have, no doubt, made his Burgundian grandfather proud.

The eccentric photo, with cat.

The eccentric photo, with cat.

With twinkles in the eye and white whiskers to set them off, Peter Hall seems to be a winemaker who has eschewed the razamatazz of the burgeoning English Wine scene.  He prefers an eccentric photo to a staid ‘winemaker with bottle’ shot.  There is little on the internet about Breaky Bottom save its website, and an article from the New York Times in the mid-1980s.

Still, he is not shy to name-drop, and Andrew Jefford and Stephen Skelton he counts as old friends. And he tells me that his Breaky Bottom – Old English for scrubland at the valley bottom – is the most popular wine at Waitrose in nearby, well-heeled Lewes.

My daughters were as interested and relaxed as I’ve ever known them in a stranger’s garden.  Feeding his beautiful fish in the pond; listening to stories of a girl cat called George, and tickling the farmhouse’s current feline occupant – a Bengal of exquisite markings.

My four year old enjoyed her finger-taste of the 2007 blend, and came back for seconds.  It is 55% Seyval Blanc with the rest mostly Chardonnay; a smidgeon of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier for good measure.  “Lemons”, was Aisha’s firm view; not to be swayed.

The bubbles were small and soft and – at 11 o’clock on a sunny Saturday morning – a little glass of this was really quite the ticket.

And then we were on our way, so that a group of students from Plumpton College could arrive.  With stories of the summer of the Beaujolais Nouveau, and Soho and oysters and strong black coffee, and pheasants and rugby football, dancing in the mind like bubbles in a flute.

Surely there are only a clutch of people that you meet in life where the memory of the meeting seems to improve with age – like a good red Burgundy.

This was one of those.

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The view of the ridge from the Tasting Room

You can be forgiven for not knowing, but I am tyrannical about poor spelling.

So the fact that I have spelt Ridgeview wrong throughout the course of the past months is a bit distressing.  But there are worse things happening in the world.  So I will have to get over myself.

Especially as I was given such a lovely birthday weekend by Ruth…

It’s become a bit of a tradition that I get a surprise for my birthday.  And Ruth has had to develop over the years all sorts of clever subterfuges to keep it secret as, by some unconscious process, I seem to develop all the innate abilities of a private investigator from about May onwards.  Hyper-vigilant to any clues as to the forthcoming birthday antics…

But it was too easy this year.  When I saw the envelope from Ridgeview addressed to the lady in question then I at least knew some of the answer.  But the half of it that I did guess in no way disappointed.

We arrived at the vineyard for an 11am start and Mardi Roberts, Sales & Marketing Manager for Ridgeview, took us into the vines.  With her native Australian accent a little subdued by life with the Poms, Mardi led us gently by the hand through the story of the Ridgeview calendar.

She conjured up images of naughty grape-loving badgers; cold nearly-mornings, the vineyard lit with paraffin lamps to ward off the frost; industrious hands green-harvesting in good summers and sorting cratefuls of grapes to ensure that only the very best get a chance to make the cuvée…

Mardi conveyed the sense that, like most premium wine producing vineyards the world over, the Ridgeview enterprise is very much a family affair.  And in our tour through the winery, it was re-inforced for me once again the notion that you need already to have made or inherited a shedload of money before you are able to start printing more by making good wine – especially good wine with bubbles.

Ridgeview’s outfit at Ditchling (near Brighton) is of the highest technological order.  The most up to date equipment from the Champagne region is there, part-funded by grants from DEFRA, so that it can be used by other grape-growers.  And the company is diversifying its business interests by making wine not only for other vineyards but also for Waitrose and M&S.

So in due course we got to the tasting in the room that best takes in the view of the ridge, and we had a chance to explore the different Ridgeview blends… 

Bloomsbury is their Chardonnay-dominant offering and this was our starter.  I had my Twitter fingers on that morning, and if you cast your eye over to the other side of the blog, you can probably still get a sense of the profundity.

The Bloomsbury was, for me, not quite as prosaic as my summer meadows tasting comment, but it was all to get better.  The Cavendish (more pinot in this) was the first Ridgeview I ever tasted some three or four years ago and the memory was in no way despoiled by a re-visit.  This was toasty and rich and the mousse was as creamy as a ferret’s tummy.

And the Knightsbridge was well, oh.  Just sublime.

So good in fact that they have more or less sold out of their latest vintage.  Which Mardi, in a beautifully Pom, understated sort of way, just slipped in to the patter.

I kid you not, the whole set up is incredibly impressive.  We were there just as the London Olympics was getting under way; when there had been a 70% increase in demand – and a massive spike in English Sparkling Wine sales across the country.  Ridgeview is already among the wine medals internationally, and it’s not hard to see why.  Not only is the product of an incredibly high standard, but the presentation is too.

We couldn’t resist taking some of the Victoria home with us.  This is a recent addition to the Ridgeview collection – a Diamond Jubilee pink that is truly, mouth-wateringly delicious.

Looking back on it, I gauge the success of the trip by these two disappointments: that we couldn’t get our hands on any of the Knightsbridge, and that the Victoria wasn’t for sale in magnum.

So whether you have to cycle Ditchling Beacon to get there, or you can bear to use your car, I’d recommend a trip to Ridgeview Wine Estate.  Birthday or not.

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I hope you will come to love the little video camera on my mobile phone as much as I do.  These are some of the never-ending fields of vines in between the road to Blaye and the Gironde estuary as, earlier this month, I trundled along on the bus to see Vauban’s great Citadel.

Needless to say we don’t have the same volume of vines here in Sussex as they do in the Côtes de Bourg.  What we do have are smaller, boutique vineyards, which are developing superb reputations in high end (particularly sparkling) wines.

If you visit some of our best viticulturists locally, they might tell you that the terroir in Sussex is very similar to the Champagne region – very chalky indeed.  I will bring pictures in due course…

And the climate appears to be getting steadily warmer, so on our soils we are able to ripen some of the more famous and luscious grape varietals.  Times have certainly changed since the 1970s…

You’d better come and see for yourself!

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