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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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