Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Herbert Hall, a Kentish tenant farmer who prospered and came to love Champagne

In 1894, Herbert Hall became a tenant farmer on the old Kentish hop route in the Wealden village of Marden. The soils here were clay with a seam of gravel- fine for hops, no doubt.  Herbert was a great character and something of a homespun entrepreneur: he quickly diversified from hops and apples into raising chickens- so successfully, that he became the principal supplier of chicken to the P & O shipping line and their cruise ships. Increasingly prosperous, he developed it seems a taste for Champagne, a discovery made by his great grandson Nicholas Hall only after 2007 when he converted the farm into a vineyard. In digging to make a small swimming pool, Nick unearthed hundreds of shattered  remnants of Champagne bottles enjoyed by his great grandpa.

Herbert Hall has been my favourite English sparkling producer ever since. What attracted me to the wines first off (2010) was  their texture- generous, rounded, durable yet fine-grained. In a word, the building blocks of BALANCE. All this stems from the original piece of land that Herbert farmed, its virtues by good fortune having  in recent years proved also to be an adaptable fine home for growing classic wine grapes:  The sunny,southerly aspect of these now 10 acres under vine; the individuality of clay soils with the gravel seam that aids good drainage - so important in maritime, precariously rainy England. Our island has made great advances in viticulture and wine-making in the last five years. There are now a good dozen estates that have mastered the shiver factor of the high, sometimes excessive acidity of old. Still, no one does it better than at Herbert Hall in wines, which pre-eminently have the silky feel of fine Champagne - though of course the taste and style are very different. HH is so English, a celebration of fresh, fragrant fruit from your favourite  Kentish orchard. The other key to excellence is of course the hand of man.

Nicholas Hall is an enlightened sort of intuitive winemaker who decided to become an English vigneron from the broader perspective of a wine lover in another profession wanting to create fine wine that, before all else, would be a real pleasure to drink.  Some of the world's most interesting winemakers have had the same priority: Paul Draper, educated as a philosopher, at Ridge Montebello, or the late Max Lake, a former hand surgeon at Lake's Folly, come to mind from the 80s/90s. Like them, Nick has a flair and  instinct for the essentials, yet with that  same creative -yes, romantic - attitude which extends beyond the numbers of acidity and pH to why we drink fine wine in the first place.Though his background is liberal arts, having read English at King's London before working as a journalist, he approached his new livelihood with serious intent. Peter Morgan, his tutor at Plumpton College, recognised Nick as a natural in fine winemaking - practical, flexible, keenly observant, open to new ideas. He has  embraced organic farming successfully and is an avid student of weather patterns. The High Weald around nearby Goudhurst, for instance is subject to winds and storms. And as Nick says, " only the other day I learnt that the Kent Ambulance Service has chosen Marden as its most secure and stable base because of our special microclimate, which is protected from the storms and squalls that afflict more exposed neighbouring villages."

Now, to the nitty gritty and my purpose in coming down to taste Nick's newly minted cuvees from 2013 - a promising vintage, fleet of foot, especially Chardonnay, as in Champagne as it happens.

Tasting 21 July 11.15 am

 Herbert Hall  Brut  45% Chardonnay, the rest made up of Pinot Noir and Meunier. Dosage 8 g/l
A lovely shimmering Welsh gold with green lights. Oh yes, those very Kentish scents of
 walking through an orchard, springtime apple blossom ceding to orchard fruits like quince and pear, romantic and sensuous. Unalloyed fruit expression in the mouth, rounded, ripe,  kindly-  yet so fresh with drive and elegant acidity. A fine definition on the end palate. Hall's achievement realised through judicious softening of  part 'malo' and 10% aerating fermentation in oak. A deft exceptional result. 18

Herbert Hall Brut Zero Dosage - a tiny amount made of the same 2013 wine, without sugar. Like Nick and Kirsty, I approached this wine with caution. Delightful surprise, the fruit was ripe enough not to need dosage.  The finished wine is more incisive and speaking personally is made for a seafood lunch, especially oysters and clams. 17

Herbert Hall Brut (2012) - a revealing comparison with the 2013 and a very challenging one in the earlier very difficult vintage. Yet Herbert Hall managed to make a fair- sized crop and a decent wine, unlike other leaders. It is more lactic in style than the exhilarating freshly energetic 2013. Full and soft for those who like an almost gout anglais style - the wine comes through tho' ,the flag still fluttering. 16

Herbert Hall Brut Rose (2013) -  Lovely colour, discreet salmon, shades of Dom Ruinart Pink, for which there can be no higher praise.  Savoury mineral Chardonnay in the driving seat, then the coup de grace, just 5 % Pinot Noir red wine is added at bottling. Dosage 7 g/l. The medley of flavours is fascinating, the hazelnut tones of dominant Chardonnay with an overlay of wild woodland red fruits. Original and very successful. A gastronomic wine for tuna, salmon and milk- fed veal. The star. 18+


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