Q&A: Peter Hall, Breaky Bottom


Peter Hall spent his early childhood in Gloucestershire before his family moved to London. He arrived at Breaky Bottom, a smallholding in the South Downs, between Lewes and the coast, in the late 1960s as a tenant and soon saw its potential for vine cultivation. He is regarded as one of the most important figures in the modern English wine industry, and as a pioneer of sparkling wine in the UK.


What’s the first wine you remember drinking?
Morey St Denis, with my French grandpère, Alex Mercier, in the south of France, aged about 12. He had a restaurant in Soho before the First World War, Le Petit Savoyard, which was very popular with ministers of the Crown and high court judges. He never made any money. He was a fabulous cook with a wonderful cellar. He taught us about all the wines of France. He told us to first acknowledge the label, respect the wine, but, with a clap of hands said, “remember, it’s only fermented grape juice”.

What job would you be doing if you weren’t in the wine trade?
I wanted to join the navy because I thought there were wooden ships, still, with sails, like the ones I saw in books I got for Christmas, or in a jigsaw puzzle. There is a parallel between what I see would happen on a ship and a small property like Breaky Bottom. I know every flint of significance. On board ship it’s the same thing. You know every rivet.

How do you relax?
With music, and a glass of whisky in the evening.

What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
I love reading, but I don’t read enough. Too busy with physical work. I’ve recently read some Seamus Heaney poetry. He’s a great man. Koizumi Yakumo/Lafcadio Hearn was my great-great uncle, born in 1850. He became a very important travel writer. He went to Japan in 1890 and remains the most respected of writers from the west. I’ve just been given a book by Suzanne Simard, a professor at Columbia University, called Finding the Mother Tree. Trees are more important than we believe and can actually talk to each other. We think we know everything, but we know so little.

Do you have any sporting loyalties?
I used to play rugby at school and I still sit on the edge of my seat if it’s played well. May the best team win, boys or girls. I also used to row at Henley. It’s an amazing sport.

Who’s your favourite music artist?
Music for me is the highest art. When I was living in London as a boy I went with my elder brother Rémy and listened to wonderful music. Ben Britten: the Four Sea Interludes in Peter Grimes. Schubert’s String Quintet, D956: just magic. Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs: fabulous. I also love great jazz. I’ve got a photograph of Louis Armstrong that he sent me. When I was first here as a bachelor I got flu and for a week I was in bed. I heard lovely jazz on the radio so I wrote Louis Armstrong a letter in a brown envelope just marked “Louis Armstrong, USA” and they delivered it! Jimmy Giuffre’s The Train and the River is just terrific west coast jazz.

Any superstitions?
When I first came here it was tiny, no electricity, standpipe outside for water: one room downstairs, and two tiny beds up. Very optimistically for a young man I bought a double mattress. That first night upstairs I was listening to jazz and every now and then, despite the calmness, I heard bang. Then the bang became more insistent, and I became a bit nervous. Suddenly, I felt two hands pushing hard on my back. I sweated … eventually I said out loud, “I know you’re here”, and immediately the hands released. A short time after that, my hand was squeezed – like a lovers’ handshake. I’m born and bred a Catholic and happy to have had that education. But come on, when you get to 12 or 13 … does the good Lord exist? I’m an agnostic still, not an atheist. All is not revealed. I’m intrigued.

Who’s your favourite wine writer?
There are many who write nice things about my wine. Oz Clarke, Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson … I don’t want to offend any of them but if I must pick one, Andrew Jefford. He’s a very dear friend. He’s a gentle soul and such a fine writer. A real wordsmith.

Give us a Netflix recommendation.
I don’t know about Netflix. When I’m really tired – and you get more tired as you get older – I just watch a bit of TV, and something a bit old fashioned. The Vicar of Dibley is amazingly rude for something that went out at peak time.

Which historical figures would you most like to meet?
Two Nelsons: Mandela, and Admiral Lord. Gandhi, Luther King: champions for racial harmony, still so lacking today.

What’s your most treasured possession?
The bust of my dear mother, Jeannine Mercier, or my father’s bronze toad. It was given to him by a man in a restaurant who said it had brought him bad luck. It was in London, wartime. Pop said, OK, I’ll take it, but before the food was served there was something in his mind that told him to get the fuck out of there. So he went out, with the toad. There was a direct hit with a bomb which blew the whole place up. So it brought my father good luck.

What’s your proudest moment?
I’m too modest to respond. Maybe the realisation, as I age, that money causes so much grief in the world. I do understand human nature – we’re driven to pursue it. But I’m proud to have arrived at this point. Human beings should care more for each other and less for money and profit. But I was flattered when in 2021 Hugh Johnson, suffering under Covid, chose 10 wines of the world to “cheer us up”, and my 2010 Cuvée Reynolds Stone was the only English wine on his list.

What’s your biggest regret?
I don’t have any big regrets. I am grateful for my good fortune, from childhood onwards. I’m a lucky bugger.

Any hidden talents?
I think I would have done OK with music: a cello player, or dare I say a conductor. But I chose a different path, so these talents, if they existed, remain hidden. When I was 35 I had a cello and someone stole it, but I was already too old to learn to play properly. My father was an important writer of short stories and I think I could have – or may yet – write prose or poetry. I must dip my quill and try, but I’m currently so blooming busy trying to make sound English fizz. So I’ll have to wait a wee bit.

What’s your favourite place in the UK?
I’m a hermit, so it’s got to be Breaky Bottom. I don’t like the way people constantly want to visit “everywhere”. Ten years from now our roads will choke to death with traffic. Before the arrival of trains almost everybody stayed within spitting distance of the place where they were born. Though I acknowledge the adventurous Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan and many others. I probably would have gone with them.

If you could be granted three wishes?
No more wars, no more wars, no more wars. Peace and more care for each other. And fuck Putin.

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