Bryony Weaver gets to grips with grape picking at Breaky Bottom vineyard in East Sussex.
It’s always been a plan of mine to go on a wine course. My local agricultural college runs an accredited course I have my eye on, but to really know what I’m doing, I first want to get to grips with the grape. As I’m lucky enough to live in wine country, the yearly harvest is a great place to start.
Our closest vineyard is the small but excellent Breaky Bottom. Its micro-terroire produces, to my palate, the best sparkling wines in the region. I suspect in a blind tasting they would out-perform a similar level Moët, Piper-Heidsieck, Veuve or even a Perrier-Jouët. Forget Freixenet – it’s not in the same league.
It’s mid-October, and the late warm weather prompts Peter Hall, Breaky Bottom’s creator, owner and developer, to send a call-out for pickers. This weekend, the Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir and Seyval Blanc grapes will be ready, with Chardonnay coming along the following Saturday. So, on the 15th, I bump down the long, mostly unmade track from the main road and come down around the head of the Downs into the dip in which the vineyard sits. The early-morning sun is casting shadows among the vines. It seems idyllic, but in October 2000 water run-off from the local farmer’s fields poured into the winery, channelled by the land configuration and soil erosion. That year’s crop was lost, along with 6,000 bottles from past vintages. But Peter and his family fought back, although their farmhouse was inundated and they had to live in a caravan until 2002, when the necessary extensive renovations were finally completed. For their hard work, they were graced with a good 2001 harvest.
Peter planted the vines here in 1974, and he and his wife Christine have run the vineyard as a family concern since. Peter’s wine connections stem from his grandfather, who was a famous restaurateur and kept an excellent cellar. Wine had always been part of family life, but the growing conditions in the South East also encouraged him to take the leap of faith at a time when few others were seeing England as a potential wine-producer.
Peter uses the traditional méthode champenoise to make his sparkling wines, where the young wine is given secondary fermentation in the bottle. In particular, Seyval Blanc grapes are high in acidity, which aids in this long-ageing process.
In 2002, the crop was blighted by an early attack of garden snails. This year, there has been another blow to the vineyard’s fruit yield. Another farming neighbour released hundreds of pheasants for the shooting season, and the birds made a beeline for the succulent grapes. As Peter’s email reads: “They’ve done a great deal of damage… I can’t think what we might be having for lunch…!!”
I’m given a sharp pair of clippers, a bucket, and sent up to the 16 rows of Pinots Meunier and Noir. Pickers work either side of a vine row, to make sure nothing is missed. The Meunier and Noir are easier to spot thanks to their dark, rich-purple colour, which stands out among the leaves, but the green Seyval Blanc grapes are more difficult to spot.
Picking is a great way to meet others who love wine or are looking for a satisfying day out in the fresh air. My first opposite number is Des, a commis chef at The University Women’s Club in Mayfair, who tells me he came to help bank up the vines earlier in the year. But he’s needed elsewhere, and I’m soon joined by David (30s, at a guess) and Florence (5 or 6). Florence, very keen, eagerly scouts ahead, pointing out the small bunches and admonishing David for being slow. But, as he explains patiently to her, you’ve got to make sure you haven’t missed any bunches. I overhear a picker explaining to another first-timer, “It’s a question of learning the grapes’ structure, where they hang. Each vine and variety is different.” The trick is to brush the leaves upwards to catch bunches hidden beneath – or as Dave, the vineyard/ harvest manager suggests, taking the leaves off altogether.
Thanks to the hungry pheasants, there are few grapes on the vines. Buckets fill slowly. One regular remarks that they were filling much quicker last year. It’s a blow for the company, which has, in past years, had great success with its creamy fizz. Selected branches of Waitrose, local farm shops and delicatessens now stock Breaky Bottom wines, and the Brut Cuvée 2006 (£20.89 a bottle, and worth every penny) is gaining fans. This year’s crop, however, doesn’t bode well for a repeat performance.
We take what we can find down to where Dave is pouring the fruit into deep trays stacked on the back of a trailer. Just before lunch, once all the rows are stripped, he drives slowly out of the vineyard and up to the pressing room, where Peter is waiting to record the harvest. I help unload and stack trays onto the old weighing machine, all leads, weights and balances. A co-helper calls out the kilogrammage, and Peter marks it down in a ledger. We place the weighed trays by the large, cylindrical press. In years when there is a larger harvest, Peter might begin pressing the wine at this point, but this year there’s no rush – with so little fruit to process, he will take his time…
At lunch, along with an excellent stew made out of the promised pheasants, new potatoes and ratatouille, fresh bread and pungent cheeses, we are offered some of 2006 Cuvée Reserve Brut, some French reds, and three half-bottles of Breaky Bottom Dry White 1995 that, Christine says, “…are still alive, so do drink them.” The Cuvée is, as recalled, smooth and buttery on the palate with a soft mousse. Delicious.
In the afternoon, it’s the turn of the Seyval Blanc, but on the rows I cover there are even fewer grapes. It’s not going to be a good year for the variety that in previous years has been so successful for the vineyard. In 1993, Peter entered Seyval Blanc wines in the International Wine Challenge in the ‘Loire/ Sauvigon Blanc’ class and won gold, with a silver medal following in 1996. But Peter and Christine are stoic and have kept Breaky Bottom alive and growing for the last 37 years. I’m looking forward to next year’s harvest, and will be raising a glass to toast the next 37.
Breaky Bottom vineyard: Rodmell, East Sussex, BN7 3EX. Tel: 01273 476 427.
For more information on Breaky Bottom wines, please visit: http://www.breakybottom.co.uk/
Written by: Bryony Weaver