Sometimes something is right under your nose but it takes a while to see it. Regular readers will know I drink the wines of Breaky Bottom with some frequency, because most (but not all) of the currently extant cuvées have appeared on this site over the past few years. But there is no doubt that visiting a producer is the best way that you can begin to get under the skin of their wines, more so than copious reading, and tasting in some respects.
What I have deduced from visiting Peter Hall and his wife Christina is, I think, something which Peter may take issue with. This is because the owner of Breaky Bottom Vineyard combines a total lack of ego with occasionally strong opinions and the ability to produce an acid tongue if deemed necessary. And what I am about to say might offend his modesty.
We constantly laud the great old-timers of artisan viticulture. For some of you reading this article, men like Pierre Overnoy and the late Stefano Bellotti stand as beacons of enlightenment in a world of corporate wine. Yet in Southern England we have a man no less entitled to elevation to similar heights. A man whose sheer determination to make beautiful wine on the Sussex Downs, over a period a little short of fifty years, has enabled him to overcome nature’s vicissitudes year on year.
If English wine is to forge a path which includes artisan production alongside a more capital-intensive way of going about wine making, then Peter Hall is that reference point. If only he could inspire a raft of younger growers in the way that Pierre Overnoy does in Arbois.
On Thursday last week I was able to meet Peter and Christina for the first time, and to taste, inter alia, the most wonderful English Sparkling Wine I have ever come across. But more of the wines later.
Peter Hall’s story has been told often enough, including in the recent books of Oz Clarke, Stephen Skelton and Anthony Rose, and indeed sketched previously by myself here on Wideworldofwine. After acquiring a lease on the old 1820s farmhouse and a couple of fields in a dip in the Downs, Peter planted vines in 1974. He made still wine from Seyval Blanc (a 1921 crossing of Seibel 5656 x Seibel 4986, and aka Seyve Villard 5276 – Skelton “The Wines of Great Britain” 2019, Infinite Ideas, p131), along with Müller-Thurgau and a little Reichensteiner.
Then, in the 1990s, production shifted from just still wines to include sparkling wine from Seyval Blanc. In 2004 the remaining Müller-Thurgau was pulled out and replaced with the traditional Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier. The total area under vine is just six acres (around 2.42 hectares for those of us more used to Continental vineyard measurements), so production here is tiny, especially compared to the plethora of new English wine producers, like near-neighbour Rathfinny Estate. Breaky Bottom is certainly no “estate”.
Two cuvées, both sparkling, are produced every year at Breaky Bottom, one being either a single varietal Seyval Blanc, or Seyval in a blend, the other cuvée usually containing the Champagne varieties. Peter has shown no interest in making a Rosé, but a Blanc de Noirs from the two Pinots has been made and will appear in due course, after what here at BB is a considerable time in bottle on lees, which makes all the difference. Current output seems to hover somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 bottles of each cuvée, but a good year might see 10,000 bottles produced of each.
The vineyard itself is certainly, as with all wines of course, what makes the product here so special. A winemaker’s job is merely to interpret the vintage and to allow the different wines to express themselves. This is down to elements like soils, topography and weather. The idyllic visual location of Breaky Bottom is perhaps best seen in the photo on pp86/87 of Oz Clarke’s recent book “English Wine” (Pavilion, 2020). It shows the flint farmhouse and Sussex barn in a hollow (Bottom) in the South Downs, not far from the sea between Brighton and Newhaven.
Access is via a difficult to find, un-signposted, track and with a drive of over a mile as the track gets more and more eroded and rutted, is not for the faint-hearted, or those with low-slung sports cars. Peter and Christina have been snowed-, or iced-in, for a fortnight at a time on occasion, and no one will deliver there, so hard is it to reach.
The soil is classic Downland chalk strewn with flints. One slope in the hollow faces vaguely north, the other vaguely south. Counter-intuitively, the north-facing slope often ripens first, largely because of a protective virtual cliff opposite, which carries the public footpath from the South Downs Way. The hollow generally protects the site from the winds which have ravaged Rathfinny along the coast, forcing them to erect an impressive array of windbreaks.
Breaky Bottom is by no means immune to disaster though. Pesticides blown on the wind, numerous floods (caused by neighbouring farmland) and destruction of the crop by an adjoining pheasant shoot over several years, have all pushed the Halls into a “backs to the wall” defence of a lifetime’s hard work to make something from this patch of what barely counts, in parts, as soil. Is it any coincidence that these are wines of unsurpassed beauty and definite character? It would be hard to believe that is so.
We tasted five wines before vineyard helper Louisa gave us a tour of the vines, winery and cellar. We began with two wines from the next release, a pair just disgorged from the 2017 vintage, therefore both having had around four years on lees in bottle. They do not yet have official cuvée names and had literally come back from disgorgement within a couple of days. Peter makes all the wines at Breaky Bottom, including both fermentations and ageing, but riddling and disgorgement are carried out off-site, at either Wiston, by Dermot Sugrue, or at Ridgeview, by Simon Roberts.
Seyval Blanc 2017
Wines are notoriously difficult to assess within days of disgorgement. Peter tells a story about a knowledgeable Champenois who stated that he would recommend six months post-disgorgement ageing for friends, three months for the trade and one day for your enemies. Nevertheless, all six of us assembled were surprised at how well this pair showed (served cellar cool but not chilled).
The Seyval had been dosed at 4g/l and Peter has to decide whether the main release should see an extra gram. Good mousse and tiny bubbles despite the serving temperature was followed by a bouquet more open than expected. Early lemon citrus gave way to a creamy touch and hints of apple.
The palate is linear, as usually the case with good young Seyval bubbles, but not piercing. There was a nice lemony softness to the finish after the initial attack. Nevertheless, lovely focus and the beginnings of a very refreshing wine.
Dosed at 6g/l, this cuvée tasted more open. It has a rounder nose and shows a hint of croissant/brioche already, though remember it has seen a long time on lees. It definitely has a savoury side, whereas the Seyval is showing pure fruit. What is important is to remember that these wines will develop in bottle if stored properly. We can see just how they develop by looking at the next three wines, a pair from 2010 and one from 2014.
Cuvée Koizumi Yakumo 2010
Koizumi Yakumo is the naturalised Japanese name for Peter Hall’s great uncle, who we would know better as Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, the great traveller who introduced Japanese literature and culture to the West.
This wine is another pure Seyval Blanc, and here we get to see how more than a decade in bottle, both pre-, and post-disgorgement (it was bottled in 2011 so a shorter time on lees), has changed this often wrongly maligned variety (maligned by the superficial and the cliché-ridden critics, or by those whose tasting experience is somewhat attenuated by a blind focus on the classics).
One taster among us suggested rice pudding, not wrong because I wrote “umami”. My Proustian recollection was a mushroom broth I consumed in an extremely jetlagged state in Nikko, Japan, some years ago now. I remember walking the hundred yards back to our Ryokan whilst falling asleep on my feet still smelling the dish. That is what it conjured up. Definitely more savoury now than the fruit-driven stage the 2017 is at. It has a side which is rounded and sedate, but it hasn’t lost its freshness. Definitely have my name on some of this when my nearest BB retailer gets their next due delivery.
Cuvée Michelle Moreau 2014
This is a wine I know well but it is also one of the BB wines I’ve not drunk for more than twelve months, so I was keen to revisit it. Michelle was not only a close friend of Christina (Michelle lived with Christina’s family on Ibiza for a while before becoming a Brighton resident), but she was also the sister of the famous French actress, Jeanne Moreau, who Orson Welles called “the greatest actress in the world”.
This has always been very much an uplifting wine. It has plenty of fruit but it also somehow has a perfume which the other cuvées don’t. I likened it to sitting in the old roof garden on top of the Samaritaine building and smelling a waft of “No 5” pass on the breeze. It seems to combine all the qualities one can find in Peter Hall’s wines in one glass. The varieties are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier.
Cuvée Reynolds Stone 2010
Alan Reynolds Stone was a famous engraver and designer. He created the commercial logos for a number of companies, but was certainly more famous for engraving the Royal Arms for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation (which now appears on our passports), alongside a number of postage stamps and bank notes. He also just happened to design Breaky Bottom’s wine labels.
What can I say about this wine? Words are frankly pointless. Hugh Johnson was interviewed for The Buyer Magazine by Peter Dean in September 2020. Hugh chose ten wines from around the world to drink in 2021. The only English wine included was this one. He called it “saline, tense and compelling”.
The contrast between the rather profound bouquet and the sheer depth on the palate is what makes this wine almost certainly the best English sparkler I have ever tasted. The bouquet’s complexity contrasts with the surprising freshness on the tongue of a wine of this age. I cannot promise to keep my bottle but it would certainly go another ten years, and it would be a privilege to taste it at twenty.
Although we really should end on that Everest-like peak, I will instead conclude with a note on a wine which I drank just under a week ago but which I have saved to write a note about on here. It may not be an Everest but it is still an 8,000-metre wine. Perhaps Manaslu, for those who know. Various other Breaky Bottom wines can be mined via the search function on this site, but this was my first bottle of the wine in question.
Cuvée Cornelis Hendriksen 2013
Cornelis Hendriksen was a well-travelled Dutch doctor, and great friend of the Halls. The cuvée is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot and Seyval Blanc. This is another wine which has the senses whirling, both youthful and mature at the same time. If that is confusing, I think I mean that it is both delicate and yet also complex. As first impressions are always worth recording, I wrote at the time that it was like a brittle ice sculpture which cracks to reveal a hidden core of real depth.
So where to find the wines? Butlers Wine Cellar in Brighton is where I get mine delivered from. They are good friends of the Halls and get a good allocation. The down side is that the wines are popular with their customers and sell quite quickly. They currently only show one cuvée on their web site, a sign indeed that a decent replenishment is somewhere between winery and shop. On its arrival, they will have what is a remarkable library of BB cuvées covering all the available years’ production.
In London, Breaky Bottom has been with Corney & Barrow for a few years, and I presume that it is via this route that the wines find their way into a number of top London restaurants. If you dine at the likes of Sketch, do save your wallet and excite your palate by trying one.
Export markets include a very knowledgeable clientele in Japan. Peter used to sell a good part of his harvest direct to consumers, although there’s no tasting room as such at the vineyard. According to the Breaky Bottom web site (well worth a look, www.breakybottom.co.uk) visits can be made, though strictly by appointment (and I do think the Halls are very busy people). The site also has a full list of UK retailers from whom the wines might more easily be purchased (easier on the tyres and exhaust, perhaps).
Currently their major retailer is Waitrose Supermarkets. Waitrose sell the wines locally, certainly in Lewes and Brighton branches, and also via the online Waitrose Wine Cellar (currently two cuvées, Cornelis Hendriksen and David Pearson).
Recent releases retail from £33-£36. The two 2010 cuvées tasted above are £69 at C&B. Not sure how they will be priced by Butlers.
If the likes of Tillingham, Westwell and others are the young guns of the English Wine revolution, the ones seen to be pushing today’s boundaries, I suggest that we remember that Breaky Bottom (est. 1974) is the grandfather of them all when it comes to single estate, single vineyard, production (you can see every single Breaky Bottom vine from the path above the vineyard).
Still going strong today, Breaky Bottom is making possibly the finest bottle-fermented sparkling wine in the UK. We are wont to idolise some producers who make wine in the classic regions, like Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Piemonte, Tuscany or Rioja. There are those of us who find excitement and greater affordability among the smaller artisans. We all have our favourites among this group, but I’m firmly with Hugh Johnson. If you haven’t tried Breaky Bottom before, do, and discover whether your palate finds the joy that mine does. You may also find within these soulful wines a different future for English wine.