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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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We all went.  Friends of ours, Ruth and I and the daughters.  We piled into the cars and headed off from Hastings for what turned out to be a very good day.

After the bucketsful of rain of the last few weeks the weather miraculously held and the ambling around Glynde Place with its beautiful rural, posh-life charm was unexpectedly magical.

I am not sure if the wine tasting glasses that we received when we arrived were a gift for us to take home with us – in any case little Dolly broke one of them – but the one remaining is a nice memento.

John Torode said good morning.  Not sure if it’s because he reads the blog (!) or because he’s broken the mould as a nice polite Antipodean.  There was a Masterchef winner there (apparently) doing tasty pork bites.  A Dosa wrap van that had me going back for a naughty wallop of seconds, but there was also a goodly turnout from local producers in the wine marquee.

I didn’t manage to get to listen to Stephen Skelton. Maybe next year…

I had thought that I might go and listen to Stephen Skelton wax lyrical in one of the tutored tastings, but as we had come en famille that felt a bit rude, so Kirsty and I took one for the team and went to do a comprehensive tour of the tent – to check out what was on show, whilst the other halves were keeping the children occupied.  [I paid for it, mind.  I waited hours in the queue for the bloody face-painting afterwards.]

So we started talking to a nice Northern chap who was fronting the Bluebell Vineyard stall.  His Seyval Blanc sparkling has apparently done superbly well at the recent UK Vineyard Association awards.  It was fresh, but the mousse was quite explosive and too much would I think have given me wind.

Next came the well-met Breaky Bottom.  It was great to chat to Peter Hall, the winemaker, who was extremely complimentary about my aftershave (and made me realise what an amateur taster I still am – true professionals would have eschewed any parfum that morning in order to keep the aromas in the glass as pure as possible).

Peter was showing a Chardonnay from 2008 which smelt for all the world of oysters and seaweed; a Seyval Blanc (which he reckoned to be in the same league as the 2006 Breaky which I bigged up in the previous post, and which Kirsty adored) and a Chardonnay-Seyval Blanc blend which was much gentler in respect of bubbles, but forgettable.

I was so taken with the bottled smell of the sea that I bought a couple of the Chardonnay.

In fact Peter’s were the only purchases of the day.  The wines from Upperton vineyard were nice – the sparkling white on offer was minerally and fresh with a nose of pencil shavings.  And their sparkling pink had dairy notes, but just didn’t sway me sufficiently from BB’s C.

And then, as soon as it was begun it was over.  And we were back in the car – all brownied-up and story-told-out with smeared face paint and rosy cheeks.

A fun day, worth putting in the diary for foodies everywhere!

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