by Mikey Clark
A Long History
England’s King John (1199-1216) was no slouch when it came to entertaining. His Majesty’s largesse at The Royal Court was legendary. The most magnanimous and celebrated of all feasts was Christmas Day when the poorest of the poor were invited to the Royal Court at Winchester Castle to eat even before the King ate.
It’s hard to comprehend the scale of these lavish events -– besides the 15,000 hens and herrings, 10,000 salted eels, 5,000 eggs, 200 pigs’ heads, 100 sheep and 20 cattle, there would have been a virtually unquenchable thirst for barrel upon barrel of the finest ales and wines to wash down the gargantuan gala dinner.
King John’s Royal Court Christmas Feast
Some of these wines would doubtless have come from Poitiers in France as King John’s second wife, Queen Isabella, was from adjacent Angoulême. Some of the wines, however, were local. As noted in the parish records of Purleigh in the Crouch Valley in Essex, the Crown took control in 1163 of Purleigh Hall and its vineyards which surrounded All Saints Church. This is the present-day home of New Hall Vineyards.
Purleigh Hall wine was much revered. We know from Crown accounts that in 1207 two tuns (barrels) of wine were ordered and sent to Bury St Edmunds for the enjoyment of His Majesty and his royal retinue. According to local historian Stephen P. Nunn, it is conceivable that King John imbibed a glass or two of Purleigh wine on 15th June 1215 ‘to give him a bit of Dutch courage the day he signed the Magna Carta’ at Runnymede.
Spin forward 754 years to the autumn of 1969 and consider the ambitious farmer and aspirant viniculturist Bill Greenwood of New Hall Farm, located on the plain at the bottom of All Saints Church hill. Nowadays, the gently shoaling Crouch Valley, referred to by locals as Essex’s Loire Valley, is recognised as producing some of England’s finest Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and sparkling wines -– an accolade largely due to the area’s microclimate, which with its moderating Rivers Crouch and Blackwater, affords less rainfall, and more warmth, sunshine and fungus-reducing cooling breezes than anywhere in the UK.
Heritage old Pinot Noir vines looking toward the Tasting Room and Winery
It was not ever thus, however, as Bill’s son Piers vividly recounts:
‘Father’s first vines came from Kent -– 2,000 Reichensteiner vines stacked in bundles of 50, dried out and dead-looking after sitting there since spring. Tasked with the job of looking after them, I laid out the vines in the barn and placed wet sacks over the roots every morning and evening after school. I helped plant them in September, two vines to every hole. Each hole was four feet apart, dug in a straight line, following a bale of twine. Posts, wires, wooden railway sleepers and 2.5mm high tensile were added later, but it still looked like strange dead sticks, wires and railway sleeper posts. Father hated to admit to making a mistake and told no one he was planting a vineyard -– after all, it was 1970 there were only twenty - odd vineyards registered in the UK at that time. If pushed, Father would tell inquisitive people he was growing cuttings for British Rail!’
Those speculative vines were bought for the modest sum of £10. More experimental planting followed in 1970 with Muller Thurgau, Pinot Gris and Huxelrebe being planted over eight acres of the Frountront Meadow under the ecclesiastical gaze of All Saints Church.
Clearly there was a great deal more for the Greenwood family to learn about vitniculture. Young Piers was duly despatched to Alsace on an apprenticeship to the winery of the famous Hugel & Fils -– recently rebranded as Famille Hugel.
‘The late Johnny Hugel MW taught me all about vine growing, wine making and tasting, and after three years entered me into tasting tests to become a Confrère de Saint-Étienne d’Alsace, one of the oldest wine brotherhoods in France. Seven Alsace wines, seven grape varieties, seven decades and seven different qualities were involved and a score of 65% needed to pass. Somehow, I made the grade and became a Brother with a blue silk barrel necklace.’
With four years’ intense experience under his belt, our bold hero Piers returned to New Hall in his tiny Renault 4, packed to the gunnels with 3,500 vines from three Pinot Noir clones. All had different root stocks – the first ‘Selection Opp No 4’, the second ‘Kober 5 BB’ and the third ‘Teleki 5 C’ -– to give the vines the best chance of propagating. All were fully planted out by 1974.
Enthused now as the previously planted vines of Muller Thurgau, Pinot Gris and Reichensteiner looked to be thriving and fruiting, Bill Greenwood, with advice from André Hugel, built his first winery in 1976.
The cosy 1976 winery now known as The Heritage Winery
A Recent Visit
It is to commune with the old Pinot Noirs that I visit New Hall on a warm, bucolic English summer’s day. Guinea fowl squawk and run free amongst the gnarled root bowers. Up above a red kite weaves among the thermals. Scanning the horizon I see the north-facing hill field with newly planted Bacchus, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir Precoce sloping down from Purleigh’s All Saints Church.
Front Meadow Pinot Noir vineyard looking towards Purleigh’s All Saints Church
The Commercial Manager, Lucy Winward, gives me the lowdown. Sadly, the Reichensteiners are no longer; however, the Muller Thurgau, Pinot Gris and Huxelrebe are still going strong and adjoin the Pinot Noir parcels. I walk row upon row of these mighty and historic Pinot Noirs with their sentinel railway sleepers, some now at jaunty angles, though still valiantly supporting the trellis wires which in turn bear delicate, probing vine tendrils. Planted nearly 50 years ago into the four acres of slightly acidic, loamy, clayey soil which span out under the vineyard in a subterranean crescent, these vines would have been forced to work extra hard, digging their roots down deeper and deeper to grow and prosper. Estate Manager, Andy Hares, describes the London clay terroir as ‘actually a fantastic (if unforgiving) growing medium for our still wine varieties’.
Front Meadow look back towards the Tasting Room and Wineries
And what of climate change, how is this affecting the Pinot Noirs and other grape varieties? Andy explains:
‘Historically harvests have taken place from mid-September through to late October. In the past four years we’ve started early September and finished by the end of the month, which may become the norm. It will be hard to ignore the effect of a warming climate in the future. Dry harvests with minimal disease enable us to leave the Pinot Noir until the end of the harvest, which is reflected in the depth of flavour. Conversely, the seasonal pattern has changed, with slow growth periods and often wet flowerings which reduce the yield. Low input preventative fungicide and good canopy management are used to minimise the risk of disease.’
Regardless of the ongoing viticultural challenges, New Hall clearly has a remarkable team to help mitigate these natural adversities. Having gotten the vines to flower, and the grapes to grow and fully ripen, the next step is to harvest. For this, a recent acquisition ‘The Beast’ – a behemoth machine costing (I’m reliably informed) nearly a staggering quarter of a million pounds - comes into its own by mechanically cleverly picking the delicate grapes.
Lucy Winward and ‘The Beast’ hi tech grape picker
‘The Beast’ allows New Hall to pick grapes ‘to order’ for the winemakers at the most ideal/perfect ripeness thereby greatly improving wine quality. Having total control over the picking date without restrictions around labour availability is a game changer. This allows grapes to be picked in the cool of the night (or when the weather’s driest, vitally avoiding dilution of the must) retaining that all - important fresh acidity and concentration of fruit the fresh fruity flavours. To top it off, ‘The Beast’ has in-built sorting tables which means the winery receives whole, fresh berries.
Equally transformative is the new and expansive modern winery which, besides containing all the latest vinification wizardry to produce 200,000 (!) still and sparkling wine bottles a year, houses a high tech, quiet, sterile laboratory. The laboratory offers high levels of vinification precision for vital decisions such as optimal grape picking times, instant fermentation results for easier and more informed adjustments, nitrogen juice readings. It’s clearly blending nirvana.
Oliver Shaw, Head Winemaker and assistant winemaker Jacques Huysamer
I’m invited back to see the new facility; Head Winemaker (and Plumpton College graduate) Oliver Shaw proudly shows me around with his loquacious South African assistant, Jacques Huysamer. Between them, they have extensive vinous experience from Oliver’s previous role as Vineyard Manager at Calancombe Estate in Devon to Jacques’ knowledge of both warm and cool climate estates in his Saffer homeland. Jacques has been instrumental in developing the New Hall new reds along with their also popular whites and an old vine Pinot Noir rosé.
I’m suitably impressed. With its combination of history, new technology and an on-site highly dedicated and professional winemaking team, New Hall and its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay seem to me likely contenders for top wine awards in the future.
Perhaps the ultimate English wine enthusiast fantasy would be a late, great Stephen Spurrier-esque 1976 Judgement of Paris part deux blind tasting in which English Pinot Noirs beat their French counterparts?
Now that would be something that both King John and Bill Greenwood would be extremely proud of.
Wine Reviews: Six Crowd Pleasing New Hall Estate Wines
It’s no secret that one of the things that has arguably held back English still wine is the generally higher cost of the wines when compared to equivalent imported wines of similar perceived quality. I’d like to think that New Hall may have cracked this rather tough nut with these entry level wines.
There’s much to admire about New Hall Wine Estate’s long wine-making history, it being one of the first wineries in England to produce traditional method sparkling wine. More recently, its very high level of investment in a new winery (for both still and sparkling wine) and a ‘Transformer-like’ grape harvesting machine ‘The Beast’ is starting to bear fruit. There’s no doubt that New Hall’s quality aspiration is heading in a pleasingly upwards trajectory.
New Hall is clearly ambitious to dedicate part of its broader wine portfolio to producing some popular entry level still wines - white, rosé and red, made from essentially cool climate varietals from Germany and France. These wines are meant to be very drinkable (when in the right hands), with slightly lower alcohol levels and more accessible price points.
Baron’s Lane White 2021. 11% £13.50.
An intriguing blend of stalwart German varietals Schonburger, Huxelrebe and French Pinot Blanc. A pleasingly, light white wine with flavours of lemon zest, lime, grapefruit, some pear skin and a touch of honeydew melon. Well balanced, with a subtle saline finish that counterbalances the fresh fruity flavours.
Tip: Keep it authentic and pair this wine with local Blackwater Estuary oysters which have been harvested there since Roman times.
2. Bacchus 2022. 11.5% £16.50.
An aromatic fruity nose of lime, orange zest, green apple, nectarine, some grassy knowl and a smidge of pear drop balances out the high acidity to produce a very quaffable white wine with wet stone minerality. An interesting alternative to those who might usually plump for Sauvignon Blanc and may want a diverting change.
Tip: A winner when paired with pan fried salmon with sSesame and sSoy sauce Salmon.
3. Signature 2021. 11.5% £14.
A white blend of Seigerrebe, Pinot Gris and Schonburger producing fragrant flavours of ripe red apple, white melon, fresh peach and passion fruit with a lick of lychee. The fruitiness is rather subtle, you could almost imagine you are drinking ‘Gewürztraminer light’ as the high acidity balances out the zingy fruity flavours.
4. Pinot Noir Rosé 2021. 11% £16.50
An enchanting, powder pink rosé made from New Hall’s Heritage old vine Pinot Noirs which were planted way back in 1974. This wine would not look out of place alongside a summertime Provençal swimming pool. However, I believe rosé can and should be drunk at any time of the year. Delightful nose of fresh strawberries and cream, a whisper of redcurrant, pink grapefruit and a spot of stewed rhubarb all lead to a fine flinty, mineral finish. Moreish.
5. Baron’s Lane Red 2021. 11% £14.50
A blend of Précoce, Rondo, Regent, Acolon and Zweigelt. Bright, almost purple hued, with a slight bubble-gum nose reminiscent of a young Gamay from Beaujolais. Wild raspberries compete with ground almonds - not dissimilar to sipping a liquid Bakewell Tart! Red and black cherry and wild English hedgerow follows through on the finish making a panoply of fruity flavours vying for one’s attention.
6. Baron’s Lane Red 2022. 11% £TBA
Was handed this bottle ‘fresh’ out of the winery by Warehouse Manager, Sim Fillary-Talbot hence no New Hall label on my bottle. To be released in Spring 2024.
A blend of much more extracted Rondo, Regent, Acolon and Triumphe (due to a significantly warmer vintage than 2021) producing a bolder, dare I say, more confident wine than the Baron’s Lane Red 2021 vintage. Much darker black fruits here – backbone of black cherry, blackberry and blackcurrant lead to satisfying warming, silky finish that belies its 11% alcohol. Perhaps a bit of a sleeper in future blind tasting competitions?
Tip: Pair with Middle Eastern seasoned grilled lamb chops with delicate lemon and pomegranate couscous and get the party started right.
Please note all wines reviewed are available directly from www.newhallwines.com