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 did.
It is hard to comprehend the sheer scale of these lavish feasts - 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.
Some of these wines would have certainly 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, in 1163 the Crown took control of Purleigh Hall and its vineyards which surrounded All Saints Church - also home to present day New Hall Vineyards.
Purleigh Hall wine was much revered, and 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 gentle plain at the bottom of All Saints Church hill.
His son Piers vividly recounts:
‘Father’s first vines came from Kent and were outside a Claas combine parts store. Father had gone in to buy parts. 2,000 Reichensteiner vines were stacked outside, in bundles of 50, very dried out and dead-looking after sitting there since spring. As everyone was busy preparing the land for drilling wheat, I was given the job to look after these dead sticks. 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 as they still looked dead despite my wet sack treatment. Each hole was four feet apart, dug in a straight line, following a bale of twine. At that time, only dead-looking sticks showed in the field - no posts or wires – these were added later in winter. Wooden railway sleepers and 2.5mm high tensile wire finished the job. 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 in his field - after all, there were only 20 odd vineyards registered in the UK at that time. In early spring of 1970 the vines all looked dead anyway. 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 in eight acres of the Frount Meadow under the ecclesiastical gaze of All Saints Church.
Clearly there was a great deal more for the Greenwood family to learn about viniculture and 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, making and tasting. After three years of instruction Johnny 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 different grape varieties, seven different decades and seven different qualities were involved and a score of 65% needed to pass. Luck, I assume, was my main guiding force as 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 returns to New Hall in his tiny Renault 4, packed to the gunnels with 3500 vines from three Pinot Noir clones. All had different root stocks, the first was ‘Selection Opp No 4’, the second ‘Kober 5 BB’ and the third ‘Teleki 5 C’. This was felt at the time to give one or all the vines the best chance of propagating. They are all fully planted out by 1974.
The Greenwoods are now enthused as the previously planted vines of Muller Thurgau, Pinot Gris and Reichensteiner have taken and look to be thriving and fruiting. Full of hope, Bill Greenwood, with advice from André Hugel, builds his first Winery in 1976.
It is these venerable Pinot Noirs that I visit in earnest at New Hall Vineyards on a warm, bucolic English summer’s day. I want to commune with the Pinot Noirs and learn some of their old secrets. Some locals refer to the gently shoaling Crouch Valley as Essex’s Loire Valley and it’s easy to understand why.
The micro-climate of The Crouch Valley with its moderating Rivers Crouch and Blackwater - affords less rainfall, more warmth and sunshine, with cooling breezes cutting down on fungal issues more than anywhere else in the UK. It is no surprise this unique area is building a reputation for producing some of England’s finest Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Fizzes.
Coincidentally I arrive the day before the 806th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta and in eager anticipation ask myself:
‘Wines once fit for King John – can they still meet such exalted standards?’
New Hall’s Operations Manager Lucy Winward fills in some of the blanks. 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 old 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. Guinea fowl squawk and run free amongst the gnarled root bowers of the Pinot Noirs. I look up and see a red kite weaving among the thermals. I scan the horizon and my eyes alight on the north-facing hill field with newly planted Bacchus, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir Precoce sloping down from All Saints Church. I am briefly transported back to 1215 when exceptional vines were grown here for His Majesty’s pleasure.
My fertile imagination then shifts to the Pinot Noirs which were planted nearly 50 years ago into the four acres of slightly acidic, loamy, clayey soil which spans out under the vineyard in a subterranean crescent. It’s a relatively fertile soil but the clay is hard and unyielding which forces the vines to work extra hard, digging their roots down deeper and deeper to grow and prosper. Vineyard Manager, Andy Hares, describes the London clay terroir as ‘actually a fantastic (if unforgiving) growing medium for our still wine varieties’.
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 (this year excepted), which may become the norm. It will be hard to ignore the effect of a warming climate in 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 challenges, New Hall clearly has a remarkable team of viniculturists to mitigate these natural adversities.
It’s humbling thinking back to Medieval lore and farming methods with no mechanisation; however, given that all the vine planting, pruning and harvesting at New Hall have always been done by hand, there seems very little difference between the sheer human effort involved in King John’s era and the present day.
So what of the near future at New Hall Vineyard? A new, much larger, state-of-the-art winery was completed in November 2021 under the watchful eye of winemaker, Stephen Gillham. He is committed to expanding their wine storage areas and also their red wine and sparkling wine facilities. The new winery accommodates many new tanks they have acquired over the past five years, as well as increases the space for grape reception, bottling and disgorging – all of which sounds like a most timely intervention as grape production is up.
With all the above in mind and with such a highly dedicated and professional team on board, I see no reason why New Hall’s ‘silky’ 2018 Old Vine Limited Edition Pinot Noir, which won a Bronze Medal at the 2020 Independent English Wine Awards, shouldn’t go on one fine day to win a Gold.
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 very proud of.
Mikey Clark can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @WineNot90583564