Olly Smith pays a visit to the East Sussex vineyard of Breaky Bottom to inspect the terroir and enjoy the company of owner Peter Hall
“Aaaaah filthy!” These were the words I growled joyfully on all fours while sniffing the earth beneath the vines at Breaky Bottom. It was my first visit to Peter Hall, the enigmatic twinkling wizard who first planted vines in his East Sussex vineyard in 1974, the very same vintage as me. His vineyard and my life are contemporaneous, but more than that, I owe my career to that specific moment of filth, revelling on all fours with Peter chuckling behind the camera.
I’d entered what could loosely be described as a reality TV show called Wine Idol and one of the challenges was to make a short film about wine. Breaky Bottom was the nearest vineyard to where I was living, near Lewes in East Sussex, and I was already a huge fan of the sparkling wine that was produced there. But I knew precisely nothing of the hands behind the vines. So I took soundings and was advised to make an appointment with Peter. And I should just interject here for your own personal safety, never turn up to Breaky Bottom without an appointment – always call ahead, lest Peter is engaged in some act of sorcery, calling down the powers from the imaginary sky-gods to ripple force and nourishment into the spirit of his natural engine room. (I’ve never actually seen this happen, but I fully suspect that somewhere up in that Downland realm, Peter probably has a gnarly staff with an ancient name capable of works to make Gandalf himself look like a ruminating chimp).
Appointment made, I turned up at, in my view, Britain’s most picturesque vineyard. As you trundle and bundle your wheels up the track to the peak of the Downs, and the vineyard, there’s a suspicion that the place doesn’t in fact exist. But, rather like the Moon’s reflection on the sea tricking you into thinking the orb lies deep beneath, the vineyards sneak up beneath your frame of vision, and the force-field of sheer goodness subsumes you into another realm. Peter gave me the once-over the first time we met, and told me I could film among his vines on one condition: “You’re going to win”.
It was as much a condition, a statement and a command and I’ve never forgotten quite how much he meant it. And that’s what I love about the wine he makes. You can talk about flavour all day long, about grape varieties, secondary fermentation and ageing the wine on the lees. But the real point is that Peter means it. There’s a lot of talk in wine about a sense of place, and with most wine you can draw a line between how it’s made and where it’s made to explain this. But with Peter it’s on a different plane. He is Breaky Bottom as much as Breaky Bottom is his. And his beloved Christine is with him every step of the way; Toto the cat wreathes in playful riddles around them both and they are collectively supported and loved by the hands of a fair few who become as entranced as the place is entrancing.
And as the seasons ebb and flow with the coming and going of the swallows, lambs and various wine fans trudging down the path, the orbit’s origin of all these is a pioneering grit, a determination to make wine that has a ruddy good story to tell. I filmed the first episode of my Channel 4 series The Secret Supper Club at Breaky Bottom and it remains my favourite for many reasons, but most of all it’s the generosity of every person, contributing in some way to a moment we all shared deep in the Downs. And of course the wine is an emissary of the mood – and you really ought to taste it, especially Cuvée Gerard Hoffnung, which you can find via breakybottom.co.uk. English wine is winning accolades left right and centre; Peter is one of the real founding fathers and I’m thrilled to see him receiving more and more recognition for his talismanic work.
He names his wines after people he’s connected with – Hoffnung was a family friend, his great great uncle graces the bottle of Cuvée Koizumi Yakumo (born Lafcadio Hearn, who left for Japan in 1890 and assumed a samurai name). A cartoonist, a literary legend, or how about Cuvée Sir Harry Kroto, Peter’s dear friend, wine-lover scientist, educator and artist, who was awarded the Noble Prize for Chemistry in 1996. He lived in Lewes and died in April 2016. These bottles are Peter’s signature, his rhythm, like the roll-up cigarettes, anecdotes, faraway closeness, warmth, performance and all the cups that pour into his source. He is inspiring the next generation of winemakers, such as the prodigiously talented Dermot Sugrue, whose alchemical touch graces the wines of Wiston Estate and his own Sugrue label, The Trouble With Dreams. And over the years, more and more English fizz has planted itself in my collection. Camel Valley from Cornwall, Gusbourne from Kent, Furleigh in Dorset, Hambledon in Hampshire and many more. But if there’s an Elrond on this earth, being a secret Elvish King, a realm where things are just as they should be and where time pools in eddies and melts into a different dawn, make the call, pop a bottle, find your way to the world’s finest filth, right here in England.
Read more by Olly Smith on drink in Chap Summer 20, out now