WWC21 – Breaky Bottom, England

WWC21 de Gentile-Williams K - Karen eating old-vine Breaky Bottom Seyval grapes

Katrina de Gentile-Williams' introduction to her competition entry is long, but I couldn't resist including it. 'When I enrolled in my University Wine Club, 30 years ago, I uncorked a life-long passion for wine. After the birth of my first child in 2004, I enrolled in a WSET Level 3 evening class, to cement a couple of hours of ‘me time’ within my week. As I poured over the textbooks, I knew I could not leave it there. I juggled the WSET Diploma with the birth of another child, and a return to work. A third child, work, a relocation, then a home renovation… life simply put the blocks on studying for the MW 13 years ago but the passion remained. Lockdown allowed me to rediscover that ‘me time’ I lost somewhere along life’s journey: I started writing about what I love, what I have learned, what I am still learning, because that will never stop. For years, I never found the time to write, now I can no longer find the time to do everything else I used to do. I was inspired to enter your competition following an extraordinary afternoon in East Sussex, spent in the company of Peter Hall and his 47 years old Seyval Blanc vines. If England is not an obvious entrant for a writing competition about old vines, Seyval Blanc is even less of a conspicuous contestant but the criteria did not preclude hybrids! As we increasingly embrace diversity in all aspects of our lives, I hope this tale encourages those in the wine world with an undeviating bias towards vitis vinifera to be more open-minded, for there is much joy to be gained from greater inclusivity. Breaky Bottom’s superb sparkling Seyval Blanc Cuvées are living proof that whilst fashion is flippant, vintage vines, that are fashioned with great care, can make wines that are timeless classics. I went in search of some birthday bubbly and came back with so much more. This is my vignette of Britain’s greatest oldest vines and their vigneron; theirs is the most enduring love story in English wine.' See our WWC21 guide for more old-vine competition entries. 

Would you agree that big birthdays warrant special sparkling wines, for toasting the triumphs and tribulations of life with loved ones? For my forthcoming fiftieth, I challenged myself to find some fizz made from vines that have been in the earth for as long as I have been on it; younger wine made from older vines. Could I unearth such a sparkling wine here in England though, one good enough to glorify my Golden Jubilee?

Peter Hall planted his first vines 47 years ago and is, assuredly, Britain’s longest serving vigneron and winemaker. Enquiries revealed some of his original Seyval Blanc vines form the framework of Breaky Bottom’s vintaged sparkling Seyval Blanc Cuvées. Peter’s impromptu invitation to visit and meet my vinous contemporaries, survivor vines of the ‘70’s, saw me cancel all other plans for a Friday afternoon and set off southbound, towards Lewes, lured by the prospect of something sui generis.

Beyond the glorious patchwork quilt of verdant fields, that knit together the counties of Surrey, West and East Sussex, stood a lone white mare, coat the colour of ermine; she heralded my arrival at Breaky Bottom, trotting forwards by way of welcome and warning that I must now leave behind the world I knew to enter its magical realm of “Downs that swerve and aspire…Eastward, round by the high green bound of hills that fold the remote fields in…the green smooth-swelling unending downs”: Algernon Charles Swinburne perhaps once, poetically, trod this same circuit.

England’s South Downs shroud many interior dry valleys, quiet coombs languishing at the feet of chalk hills, carpeted in grass, atop deep invisible aquifers: colloquially called bottoms, none are more breathtakingly beautiful than Breaky Bottom. At the end of a track that trailed past more than a mile of hedgerows and fields festooned with cow parsley, I gazed down, over a steep buttercup bank, into an inner sanctum of seclusion. Peter fell in love with the solitude of this spot whilst working here as a farm labourer. His quaint cottage and on-site winery, constructed from the copious flint concretions that litter the locality, nestle intimately with his vineyard.

WWC21 de Gentile-Williams K - Breaky Bottom old Seyval vines 1
Breaky Bottom old Seyval vines

With a degree in agriculture, Peter was au fait with the geology that lay beneath his feet: this type of terroir, a meagre humus layer over porous, calcium carbonate rich soils made some of the world’s finest wines on the other side of The Channel, so why not here in East Sussex? Bestowed with the silex of Sancerre and Cretaceous chalk of the Côte des Blancs, Peter planted his first 1.5 hectares of experimental vines in 1974 - Muller Thurgau and Seyval Blanc. Field allies for almost a decade, the German vinifera crossing eventually succumbed to the superior performing French hybrid in 1983. 

Released for sale a century ago, Seyve-Villard 5276 (eponymously named after creators Bertille Seyve and Victor Villard) first found its way to England in 1947, when Edward Hyams planted some at his small-holding in Kent. Hampshire’s Hambledon had proven Seyval grew well on the same seam of chalk Breaky Bottom sat upon. Raymond Barrington Brock’s research, ‘Report No.4’, suggested Seyval Blanc was a safe bet too. Should we really be surprised that Seyval has stood the test of time here in the South Downs? 

An interspecific crossing, that yields well in cool climates and resists disease, viticulturally, Seyval sounds like a superb choice for growers in Great Britain. It is. Sardonically, Seyval’s spread has been stymied by the EU’s refusal to allow it to wear its ‘Quality Wine’ label; shunned because it contains paltry percentages of non-vinifera genetic material, North American genes that paradoxically proved to be the salvation of Europe’s vineyards! The fashion for Champagne varietals, which began in the 1990’s, has seen Seyval fall to 5th place in Britain’s most planted stakes.

Notched and gnarled, the oldest Seyval vines are sculptured into the landscape at Breaky Bottom. Fittingly, upon arrival, these old timers are amongst the first you will meet, sharing their space these days with more youthful, svelte, Seyval models, eleven short rows of Chardonnay and one long one, which acts as a divide between the old and the new guard in the sparkling stakes. The younger Seyval, interspersed amongst the veteran vines of Breaky Bottom, have replaced those that have withered and died. Side by side they stand and when the summer sun is shining, and the canopy cascades with bright green leaves and young fruit, Mother Nature’s filter unifies the old and the young. Arrive in Spring though, as buds are breaking, when there is no colourful make-up to hide behind and those primordial paragons are easy to identify, their thicker trunks and more weathered looks in full view, belying their age but showcasing their fortitude, their constancy. I feel an affinity with these vines from my era: that we have all aged is obvious on the outside but here we stand, still vital, digging deep when mid-life gives you lemons, planning to stay a good while longer because experience tells you there will be good years and bad years, living teaches you with the rough comes the smooth. 

WWC21 de Gentile-Williams K - Breaky Bottom old Seyval vines 2

Be it nature or nurture, these old Seyval vines are hardy. I think they get that from Peter. He has been hard at it for 47 years, leading them by example, they’ve grown old together. Others at the vanguard of English viticulture may have handed on the baton to younger family members but not Peter Hall: he still puts in a full shift, 7 days a week, at 78! Extraordinary work ethic. Extraordinary man. Extraordinary winemaker. An eccentric hobbyist who has become the benchmark for brilliance in Britain’s wine fraternity. 

Chalk soils are well suited to viticulture but site selection is the key to success. The original vines faced North, still do, so despite an auspicious start to a career on the fringes of where wine grapes will grow, ripen they do, year in, year out. Peter certainly picked a seemly and sheltered site for his Seyval in 1974, what a serendipitous stroke of luck!

Sadly, not all the original Seyval vines are still with us: what hazards have those that remain had to overcome? Has frost been a factor in the demise of those dearly departed? Frosts find their way from high ground to low, seeking to settle in dips and hollows. The valley floor of this bottom may, upon first appearance, look like a frost pocket but never judge a book by its cover. Throughout April and May, British vignerons will, ineluctably, adopt an owl-like, nocturnal routine in their seasonal battles against Jack’s local militia of frosts. Earnest eyes keep watch over bougie burners, the most common weapon in their armoury, the deployment of which is far less of a hoot than the nightly exploits of their feathered friends. Would it surprise you to hear then, that for 46 out of 47 years, Breaky Bottoms’ vines have not fallen victim to invection frosts? Every 5 years or so, during Spring, a few buds may succumb but it was only in 2020, during that most aberrant year, that an anomalous Arctic advection frost attacked 80% of the potential crop: a katabatic wind robbed Breaky Bottom fans of a plentiful supply of what was otherwise a wonderful vintage, qualitatively. On balance though, Breaky Bottom’s Seyval vines have not made an enemy of Jack Frost. The vineyards’ proximity to the warming influence of the sea may be Seyval’s salvation here. Sure, Seyval is a true cool-climate varietal, with the genetic credentials to survive on our shores, less susceptible to frosts than say Chardonnay, but at Breaky Bottom those 2 are bedfellows, behind the Flint cottage, pointing to Polaris, yet it is rare either lose their buds – is this providence prevailing? 

What other challenges have these valiant Seyval vines been subjected to? Grapevine trunk disease is a perennial one, affecting vines of all ages, potentially posing more risk to Britain’s grape growers than the phobic frosts we hear so much more of. Bot canker and black goo are just two examples, prosaic prognoses that evoke such onomatopoeic imagery. Difficult to detect. Ultimately deadly. It is irksome so much infected vine material has found its way onto the market and into soils, straight from suppliers. That so many 47 years olds at Breaky Bottom are in good health is testimony to Peter’s métier in that vineyard, his life’s work.

Vines can endure stress. So can Peter Hall. At Breaky Bottom both have endured more than their fair share. Despite its idyllic picture-postcard setting, Breaky Bottom’s vineyards and cottage have been ravaged by repeated muddy flooding. A portentous flood to the farm in 1976 didn’t deter Peter from pursuing his pipe dream to craft wines from his vine filled valley. After the torrent of the terrible twos, the teenage years were tumultuous too: further floods in 1982 and 1987 might have incited most to throw in the towel, give up on the grapes when weeks of waterlogging throughout October and November ‘87 caused damage to the vines and significant harvest losses; it transpired to be a tempestuous, dramatic decade. Multiple muddy floods rained down on Breaky Bottom again in 2000, washing Peter and his wife, Christine, out of their home. 21 years on they are all still there, rooted and resilient, Peter Hall and his steadfast Seyval Blanc, who have served each other so loyally.

Man and vines unbreakable bond at Breaky Bottom is evident. Peter will tell you he is a hermit, he doesn’t like to leave his haven: it may not always have been a place of safety but it houses all that his heart holds dear, including those Seyval vines that he has nurtured since the beginning of his journey into winemaking and boy what a ride they’ve had, are still having. The Seyval vines were planted the ‘old fashioned way’ in 1974, with spades and string, aided by his dearly departed friend, Jack Pike, who helped him water them in with a healthy dose of urea! Might this curious christening ceremony be the secret of these Seyval vines’ success? Tongue-in-cheek suggestions aside, it seems fitting that Jack Pike has been immortalised with Peter’s 2015 100% sparkling Seyval Blanc, a cuvée containing elements of those original Seyval vines and the men who planted them. 

Friendship for Peter is as steadfast as his vines and for good measure I picked up another one of those friends to take home to my party; Peter Christiansen, Reader of Physics and expert in Space Plasma, whose untimely passing is commemorated in the Breaky Bottom 2014 100% Seyval Blanc Cuvée. This tells of another chapter in Seyval’s 47 years history here, a story I now look forwards to sharing with my friends, at my fiftieth.

As my Kia climbs reluctantly, upwards, past chalk pits and closely cropped turf, homeward bound, Jack Pike and Peter Christiansen bottled and by my side for company, I reflect upon how, in the hands of their dear friend, Peter Hall, these Seyval survivors have stood the test of time superbly. Whilst Seyval may not be spearheading the seismic change that has gripped Great Britain’s wine industry over the last 30 years, from the depths of this diminutive dry chalk valley, for 47 years, Seyval has shown it has real staying power, overcoming the challenges the world has thrown at it, reinventing itself along the way. The wines started still but now only sparkle, they began in buckets but now bleed their juice via a Bucher and beyond question, in Peter Hall’s hands, Seyval Blanc makes seriously good sparkling wines, grand enough to glorify my Golden Jubilee. 

When I serve up Breaky Bottom’s Blanc de Blancs at my fiftieth, undoubtedly, Jack Pike and Peter Christiansen will surprise my family and friends when they reveal their true identities, that they are not formed from the usual trio of sparkling suspects. I hope in another 50 years from now those old Seyval vines will still be offering up something worth celebrating with. 

The photos are provided by Katrina de Gentile-Williams.