Breaky Bottom is to blame for converting my nonchalant interest in English fizz into a fully-blown love affair. On a June weekend in 2014, we'd been lucky enough to be invited to Glyndebourne. Waking up the next morning in splendid sunshine at our chocolate-boxy B&B we wondered how we might continue this glorious theme of English finery. I'd read about Breaky Bottom - Oz Clarke declared it 'the most beautiful vineyard in Britain' and so on a whim, I gave them a call. Would they be open to a quick visit this afternoon? Yes, OK, perhaps just a quick one - it was a Sunday after all.
And so a few hours later we found ourselves making a pilgrimage up the winding, chalky track, trundling along in our distinctly inappropriate car. (We quickly agreed on one potential interpretation of the name, Breaky Bottom).
I choose the word pilgrimage quite specifically. The road is long. Driving from Lewes to Newhaven through winding country roads, blink and you miss the small, now faded sign, half-obscured by overgrown trees. Up the track, past a few farm buildings and just keep going. Past piles of chalk (an old quarry perhaps?) and chalk literally crumbling out of the hillside. As if to give you proof of Southeastern England's calcareous credentials.
Here we are part of the Paris Basin, a geological basin of sedimentary rock. This strata of limestone and chalk links the plains of Champagne to the south-east of England under the English Channel, and even as far down as Burgundy where it resurfaces along a geological fault line as the famously prized ridge of limestone that is Burgundy's Cote d'Or. It's true, Chardonnay loves Limestone.
It's only 1.5 miles, but the road seems never-ending, as you're forced to take it slowly, climbing up a gentle slope as you seem to leave all of civilisation behind you. For a long time it's just you, the sheep and the undulating fields as you wind around, higher and higher. Eventually you make it to the top of the hill, rewarded with a beautiful view across the downs...but where is Breaky Bottom? If it weren't for the sign you'd never know that hidden down there in the valley - literally hidden from sight - the most picture-book pastoral cottage scene you could imagine. Given hope by the sign, and guided by a thirst for wine, you continue down the track, seemingly driving into an empty valley. But eventually, with cinematic drama, the cottage and vineyards buried in the fold begin to reveal themselves, coming steadily into view as the track curves around and down the hill.
Soon you're trundling up the garden path, enclosed with mature trees, vines and the picturesque paraphernalia of a country farm. An old tractor, a shed, a gnarly old fence. An old stone wall encircles a pretty garden and the picture-perfect Victorian flintstone cottage. Hints of Christine's artistic nature pop through the cottage windows; a sculpture here, a painting there.
Everything has the feeling of being well-settled in; established and deep-rooted.
Since the 1970's, Peter has been making wine in this little bucolic pocket of England, when English wine was more a joke than a viable proposition. He took over the place when a run-down cottage, noting its potential as a terroir: chalky soils and a perfectly protected situation nestled in the fold (even though it's only 2 miles from the seafront).
To say he is a character would be an understatement. To have a conversation with Peter is to jump between several languages (his mother is French/Italian), story threads and anecdotes in one breath. Do keep up. So many adjectives come to mind that I must alphabetise them. Eccentric. Esoteric. Indefatigable. Irreverent. A raconteur. He is balanced by his lovely partner Christine, who with an artist's sensibility, brings him back on course, shaping the conversation, and makes sure his feet touch the ground just once or twice. One gets the sense that Peter's world might stop spinning without her, perhaps forgetting to eat or sleep. They are a formidable duo.
One of Breaky Bottom's specialities is Seyval Blanc. It was this grape that Peter first planted, and which won him his first International Gold Medal for a still wine in 1993. It's a grape that is not permitted by the EU to be labelled as "quality wine" because it is a hybrid. (That means it must be labelled as 'English' (or Welsh) Regional Wine' or 'Varietal Wine', supposedly inferior categories to 'English Quality Sparkling Wine' which is how bottles made from Chardonnay / Pinot Meunier / Pinot Noir, for example can be labelled). But this is a great shame because it perfectly suits the cold English Climate, (thanks to its hybrid roots which is what gives it its cold weather resistance) ripening early and yielding well. It has a citrusy, clean flavour and responds well to lees aging, and as Peter worked out, is perfectly suited for Traditional Method (Champagne method) sparkling wine.
Peter also makes Sparkling wines from the classic Champagne trio of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, but it's the Seyval Blanc that is my favourite and which feels the most distinctively Breaky. Production is less than 10,000 bottles a year, from their 6 carefully-tended acres.
Every year the wines are named in memory of a significant person in Peter's life, which underlines just how much of a family operation this is. From his great-great Uncle, the travel writer Lafcadio Hearn / Koizumi Yakumo to the woodcutter Reynolds Stone - created of the British Passport coat of arms, to the Breaky Bottom logo.
Since our first visit (where we ended up most likely outstaying our welcome, as Peter regaled us with tales of Pheasant attacks and hard graft), we've had the pleasure of helping out with the bottling process one year, and lending a helping hand at the harvest in 2018. The exhaustion, the tirelessness, the backache (for this pair of desk-dwellers) the joys and the sorrows (like when late-night exhaustion led us to accidentally leave a hatch open and we lost who knows how many litres of wine); each visit has been a story, each one leaving us more and more enthralled into the Breaky spell.
Thankfully last year, Peter and Christine were approached by a design agency to do a rebrand. The story, authenticity and class of the wine now shines rightfully through. Here you see Peter modelling the latest headgear - for winemaker and bottle.
In February, in a time which feels like a different world, we drove down to visit Peter and Christine and had the huge honour of tasting the soon-to-be released 2015 Cuvee Jack Pike Seyval Blanc together. It was beautifully full flavoured with a nose that sung of honeysuckle, lemon and fresh tart apples.
We enjoyed it over lunch - fresh green soup made from goodies in Christine's garden, fresh bread, boiled eggs and a beautiful salad, with some intrepid spring sunshine creeping through to illuminate the table.
My favourite story from this visit perfectly encapsulates the Breaky spirit. Peter and Christine were delighted to have been featured in a German wine magazine. They were amused to see the headline of the piece - "It's Fucking Marvellous". Who could they have been quoting? Quel Scandale! How funny, they thought - perhaps was it Dermot Sugrue (Britain's finest winemaker, and a friend of Peter's also featured in the piece). Reading on, to their amusement it was, naturally, a direct quote from Peter himself. Of course it was. Anyone who's met Peter for 5 minutes would not have had a moment's doubt.
And it is - it's fucking marvellous. English Sparkling Wine may have only recently started getting an international name for itself, with plenty of glamorous projects funded by seemingly money's-no-object investors. But Peter's been doing this for years. You get the sense he is almost bemused with the sudden excitement. Most recently they were "discovered" by Corney & Barrow, who now proudly stock them. They must've been head over heels to finally discover the original English Sparkling Wine pioneer, there all along, hidden away in a fold in the South Downs. With a story, proprietors, setting and pedigree that even the best marketing team couldn't have made up.
WHERE TO BUY
ORDER DIRECT FROM PETER & CHRISTINE: April offer of free shipping on cases of 6. FedExed right to your door!
Corney & Barrow