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Jefford on Monday: Happy Birthday BB

The only European vineyard I know intimately is celebrating, tomorrow, the fortieth anniversary of its planting.

Breaky Bottom, Andrew Hasson ©

It was in 1974 that a young livestock farmer called Peter Hall decided, in a moment of life-changing temerity, to wave his piglets goodbye and plant 1.6 ha of vines on the tiny Sussex farm he tenanted, and which he and his second wife Christina now own. This place is called Breaky Bottom.  

There were 150 ha in production in the UK in 1975; the total now exceeds 1,500 ha. Only the quixotic chanced it back then; now vines are lavishly buttered over south-facing hillsides by former London hedge-fund managers and retired investment bankers on the soundest advice.  

There are bigger vineyards than Breaky Bottom; others are more influential, have better international distribution, garner more publicity, make more money, flaunt more swank. But this I can guarantee: those who make their way along the lonely, chassis-scraping mud track which unthreads its way up and over the brow of the Sussex Downs and spools into the green fold below (and they are many) will never forget their visit. In the minds of most, Breaky Bottom has a habit of becoming England’s emblematic vineyard, and its engaging, combative and articulate worker-proprietor their English winegrower of reference.

I first made my way over that track a quarter-century ago, and I’ve often been back since; Peter is a good friend, so feel free to disregard such estimation of his wines as may follow. When I met him on October 1st 1989, he was on the verge of bankruptcy — after two catastrophic vintages in which he had harvested only 1,000 bottles in total. The `89 was a good and more importantly generous vintage, but Peter didn’t have the money to buy bottles, labels or boxes. A benefactor stepped in – since the bank refused to increase his existing loans by a penny.

Over the years, setback has followed setback; perhaps the worst pass came when the vineyard and farmhouse were flooded and muddied 31 times between autumn 2000 and spring 2001, and Peter and Christina had to spend the following two years living in a caravan. Even now, Peter is fighting adversity on two fronts: repeated mass invasion from grape-greedy pheasants at harvest time, and vineyard difficulties caused by the supply of diseased young vines. I said he was combative, and it’s been just as well: legal redress for the negligence of neighbours and suppliers has been as important as resilience of the spirit in keeping the whole enterprise going. It requires nerve to seek justice in that way.

None of this, though, really matters much when it comes to what we might call the achievement of Breaky Bottom, and the reason why Peter is regarded as an inspiring model by the talented younger generation of English winemakers (such as Dermot Sugrue of Wiston Estate, a gold medal winner in this year’s Decanter World Wine Awards).  

What does matter is that Peter (in part thanks to his French mother) grew up drinking good wine. What also matters is that (in part thanks to his literary father) he loves fine writing, fine art, fine talk and fine music. Indeed in the early years opera was performed in Breaky Bottom’s flint barn, and anyone who wanders along the hilltop paths early one morning when Peter is out pruning or trimming may well hear the valley echo quietly to Bruckner or Brahms, emanating from a battered radio taped to his waist. A sense of aesthetic rightness pervades everything at Breaky Bottom. It is a place of much-assailed perfection. Sheep still fulfill the hillside’s downland vocation, and Peter has his hands bloodied at lambing every spring; owls haunt its nights. Even the winery name on label and box is in lettering designed by the great English wood engraver and typographer Reynolds Stone. There is a vision here. In my mind’s ear, I always hear Vaughan Williams’ ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis’ – the most English 15 minutes it is possible to procure — when I drive over the hill, and it usually brings tears to my rarely nostalgic eyes. Music and wine draw on the same vein of inspiration: place somehow sublimated into craft, into art.

This is not the only way to make great wine, but it is most definitely one way. In the early years, Peter produced resolutely dry, vinous white wines which aged superbly from a ‘military’ (his word) youth to a rather creamier middle age, at a time when most English growers were floundering in a lake of lame medium-dry wine based on exotic, cold-hardy German crosses. Like most English growers, he came to realise that the land really wanted to produce fine sparkling wine; unlike most English growers, he actually had chalk in which to do that. He now has the Champagne varietal troika – but firmly believes that his beloved Seyval Blanc can, just here, match them for nobility. There is no ‘Brut NV’; every cuvée in every vintage is differently fashioned, and named after a person of some significance. The latest is the gold-medal winning Cuvée Koizumi Yakumo (named after Peter’s great-great uncle, the Japanologist and writer Lafcadio Hearne, known to Japanese readers as Koizumi Yakumo). This is fine, pure English sparkling wine from Sussex chalklands, made without concessions or shortcuts.

The forty-year mark is where the next generation normally begins to take over; for the time being, though, Peter’s four talented children are otherwise employed. This secret valley doesn’t have to be a vineyard, of course; but I can’t be alone in finding it impossible to imagine those familiar soft contours unquartered by vines. Happy Birthday, Breaky Bottom, and may there be many more decades ahead.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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