by Rose Murray Brown MW
Published in The Scotsman 26 April 2014
“You need a significant war chest to grow vines in the UK”, says Nick Hall, creator and winemaker of new English sparkling wine Herbert Hall. “You can get wiped out with late frost or hail – with no insurance to fall back on”.
Despite these drawbacks, there has been a rash of entrepreneurs keen to jump on the English sparkling wine bandwagon and experience the life of an English vigneron. Apple orchards and hop fields in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire are being transformed into modern-day vineyards, with big scale plantings at Nyetimber, Gusbourne, Hambledon and Rathfinny wineries coming on stream – with 5 million bottles of English fizz predicted to be on sale by 2015.
So when Hall (pictured right) approached me asking if I was interested in tasting his Kent fizz, I was skeptical. Not another one, I thought, and this one sounds like a hat-maker. I have to admit, when I tasted it I was really impressed by its quality – and even more so when I talked to Hall about his background.
Herbert Hall is the name of Nick’s great grandfather, a farm labourer in the Kentish hop fields, not his family mansion. Hall’s vineyard, once a poultry farm, is rather different from other producers springing up. He has just 10 acres – so he is what you would call in the New World – a boutique winery – and in Old World – a ‘garagiste’.
He is not actually making it in his garage, but he is very small scale. He is, surprisingly, managing to grow his vines organically – focusing on only making top quality fizz – no still wines.
“I do everything myself from driving the tractor to disgorging the fizz” says Hall. “I have never worked so hard in my life and our mainly clay soil is hard to work as it does not drain so well”.
But Hall’s fruit-driven fizz and hand-crafted image has not gone amiss with sommeliers in London’s Michelin-starred restaurants, they have even been down to take part in his ‘bud-rubbing’ sessions on the farm. Hall has had rave reviews from Champagne expert Tom Stevenson “excellent potential and fine winemaking” – and even Prince Charles was impressed enough he invite him to make fizz under the Highgrove label.
Hall’s success is surprising with no background in wine. English degree in hand, he went into journalism and corporate communications in the advertising world. When he left the city returning to help his brother on the family fruit farm in Marden in Kent, he fancied trying his hand at planting vines on their south facing slopes.
“I enrolled on a two year foundation degree course at Plumpton College and planted my first vines in 2007 with college notes in one hand and vine in the other”, he says. His college tutor, Peter Morgan, became his mentor.
“My only real disaster was on my first tractor ride when I was preparing the ground to plant the Chardonnay vines – my brother’s old tractor burst into flames and I nearly died”, he says.
After spending £60,000 building the winery and £150,000 on equipment “the expensive part” – he luckily managed to track down a second hand German pneumatic press in Somerset at Dunkery Estate which had been barely used – he made his first vintage in 2009: “just 1500 bottles, but it was well received” – and 2010 was a rave success with 12,500 bottles produced.
2012 was a “terrible” wet vintage: “so acidic I had to put it through malolactic and made just 6,000 bottles” – but last year’s vintage 2013 is looking superb.
So where does he go from here? Hall has a further six acres of his brother’s land he may be able to plant. His winery capacity is just 20,000 bottles, so he intends to keep the fizz production small and handcrafted with just two wines: Brut and Rose. “I quite fancied making a dessert cider until I tasted Canadian Niege with Heston Blumenthal recently which was horrible, so I might look at using our elderflower or plums for cordial instead”, he says.
When Hall appeared in Scotland recently to show his new fizz at a trade tasting, he received a rapt response. “It is amazing considering its origin”, said one sommelier. I would agree.
HERBERT HALL BRUT 2011
(@£28 Harvey Nichols, Edinburgh; Exel Wines, Perth; Inverarity Morton, Glasgow; Great Grog, Edinburgh; Fortnum & Masons; Selfridges; Harrods; Gray’s & Feather; also available in The Apartment, Edinburgh; Drovers Inn, Cortachy; 16 Byres Road, Glasgow; Le Gavroche, The Ivy, House of Commons & Tate Britain in London)
Also available from www.herberthall.com
Alcohol: 12% Grapes: 40% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir, 30% Pinot Meunier
Winemaker Nick Hall focuses on trying to express the fruit, rather than making a lookalike biscuity Champagne. His Brut has a floral delicacy, rich focused citric fruits and crisp dry stony finish. Very impressive.