A visit to Black Chalk

The Editor and I visited Black Chalk yesterday (8th October 2021, the day before their harvest began). It was indisputably the most enlightening, educational and god-damn enjoyable tasting we have been to in years and years – this is unrelated to the dearth of tastings we have been to recently (thanks COVID-19).

There are so many good things to say about Black Chalk, I feel a little lost for words; this is something that rarely afflicts me. The basics, then: Black Chalk is a premium sparkling wine producer with vineyards dotted around the village of Cottonworth, deep in the chalky hills of Hampshire. This is really fine wine made in my metaphorical back yard.

Black Chalk winery and visitor centre

Black Chalk produce approximately 30,000 bottles every year, all vintage wine, in descending order of quantity: Classic white sparkling, Wild Rose rosé sparkling and Dancer in Pink, a still rosé that I have reviewed here. More Cuvées will be coming from the 2020 vintage, which will begin to be released in 2023 (a significant birthday vintage for me if you are looking for gifts!).

The Dancer in Pink is the first wine to be completed and shipped out of the door of the winery that was converted from an old dairy during 2020. Wines made before the 2020 vintage were made at Hattingley Valley. The winery is state of the art and is filled with relatively small fermentation vessels to allow specific vineyard plots and areas planted with different vine clones to be fermented separately.

Jacob and Zoë in Rivers vineyardThe winemaking team consists of two people who do everything in the winery themselves. Busy people! They are Jacob Leadley (owner and head winemaker) and Zoë Driver (assistant winemaker). Both have degrees from the excellent winemaking school Plumpton College. This is the place too learn about winemaking in England.

The third chap who is invaluable at Black Chalk is James Matyear (also ex-Plumpton), the vineyard manager. In a vintage as catastrophic as 2021 (it has rained all summer, there have been hardly any very sunny or warm days, it is just not the year you want to be growing wine grapes in!), James has reportedly been working 90-hour weeks! Without him there would undoubtedly be little in the way of Black Chalk 2021.

I imagined the 2021 vintage would one a complete disaster and I thought Jacob’s decision to start harvest on Saturday the 9th October was sheer madness – it had been slinging it down all week before that. So, I was very pleased when, the morning before our arrival, Jacob tweeted this forecast for the upcoming week.

Harvest weather for Black Chalk

Perfect weather for harvesting grapes; Jacob’s choice was vindicated!

So, what of the 2021 vintage. I can only talk about the fruit I had tasted, and the descriptions Jacob and Zoë gave.

The Editor and I were taken to the ‘least favoured’ vineyard of Black Chalk: Rivers. This has a mixture of grapes planted and is planned to be largely used for making still wine. It still has the chalk soil that makes Hampshire such a special wine-growing region.

For someone like me who had first tasted English wine and English wine grapes almost thirty years ago, the quality of fruit at ‘Rivers’ left me stunned. I mean really, really stunned. The clone of Pinot Noir known as Früburgunder in Germany, was so ripe it almost had too little acidity. Its depth of complex fruit flavours was incredible for those still with the outdated memory of English wines being mean, lean, acrid liquids of insipid thinness.

The Chardonnay had an idoneous level of acidity, whilst again being remarkably ripe and filled with sun-kissed flavours. I could hardly believe that this, a real, proper wine grape seemed ripe enough to me to make a pleasing, energetic still wine of delightful fruitiness. Seriously! I know some Chablis growers who would piss themselves laughing if they got fruit of this calibre from some of their vineyards.

Davy with Pinot GrisThen the real surprise: on the Pinot Gris vines there were big, brown bunches of the grape that would make an Alsace grower think they had done a great job in the vineyards. There were about a tenth of the bunches an Alsace grower would want, but my god they looked wonderful. The fact that there were any bunches at all, and there were a perfectly adequate number, is down to James’ hard work.

Jesus Shit, they tasted wonderful too! All those fat, rich, white fruit aromas, throbbing with voluptuous complexity and yet infused by good acidity. These would be considered fine Pinot Gris grapes by the most demanding of Alsace or German growers.

Jacob is also nurturing a once ornamental vineyard, ‘The Circle’ up to wine producing quality. Even though the Pinot Noir we tried from this vineyard was less ripe than that from ‘the rivers’ vineyard, it still have a fantastic depth of rich fruity flavours charmed and beguiled.

Pinot Noir

Jacob puts the depth of fruit flavours in his grapes down to the long hang time they have on the vine. The importance of this we will come to shortly.

I will not bore you with all the abstruse technical questions I asked when we were going around the winery. However, some general comments are important to underline.

Firstly, Jacob and Zoë are extremely well versed in the technical aspects of making wine. With a BSC and an MSc in oenology from Plumpton between them, you would expect them to be scalpel sharp. This pair know their onions, down to each and every thin film between the layers of the Allium.

Far more important than the faultless competence, is their shared view of what is important in growing wine. This was illustrated by two comments made by Jacob.

I asked him if he focussed more on producing a commercial product that would be popular and easier to sell. Jacob, with Zoë’s obvious agreement, said that, whilst they obviously had to make commercial products, otherwise they would soon be out of jobs, they wanted to do more than that. They wanted to experiment, to find which grape clone produced the best grapes on what type of soil, which part of a vineyard makes the most complex wines, how they can blend wines of similar or differing origins to create the best wine.

Black Chalk - little onesThis desire to experiment and find out what their vines and vineyards are capable of producing is why they had so many small fermentation vats so that every type of grape from every origin could be brought up separately and then the two of them could work out how to blend them. Zoë said this process could occasionally involve the odd argument – but it is rare that they do not agree once the dust settles.

Experimentation in the big, good vintage of 2020 (and having their own, just finished winery) allowed them to make eight different wines from their vineyards – including a single vineyard, Blanc des Noirs and two Blanc des Blancs cuvées. I have no idea what the premium will be on these special bottles, but they will be worth seeking out as they will be the results of the best experiments from this excellent producer.

As well as the desire to experiment to extract the best from their material, Jacob said something that warmed the heart of this cynical, old wine writer. At one point during a general conversation, Jacob made the offhand remark, “I was not quite prepared for how much art there is in winemaking.” There is, you know? That is the spirit, old boy!

Black Chalk loading conveyor and pressSo, to the winemaking. Different clones from different patches of their vineyards are brought into the winery separately having been sorted by the pickers as they harvest. They are loaded into Black Chalk’s ultra-flash press and pressed with the stems (which are full of antioxidants) and the pressed juice is constantly tasted to decide when to separate off different fractions and when to stop pressing.

The juice is transferred to an appropriately sized fermentation vat, cold stabilised for a couple of days before initiating fermentation with inoculation of sparkling wine-specific yeasts. The fermentation is temperature controlled to retain fresh flavours from the juice. A very small proportion of the juice is fermented in barrel, not to give oak flavour but to impart textural complexity. The volume is small because barrels lead to oxidation of the developing wine.

Black Chalk's wooden barrel

After fermentation the separate lots are all tasted by Jacob and Zoë to decide which ones need to go through malolactic conversion, if any. Then there is the experimentation of tasting all the distinct cuvées to decide what will be blended with what to make final wines – I feel sure this involves more nods of agreement than the previously mentioned arguments, but I did not pry.

The blends are made, bottled with a bit of sugar and yeast, and allowed to mature for between 20-30 months before being riddled by gyro-palettes. This is not an enormously long time on yeast lees, consequently the final wines are not marked by autolytic characteristics. After this bottle fermentation and maturation, the bottles are disgorged one at a time (good lord, what a lot of work!), given six or so months on cork then are labelled up ready to be sold.

A quick note one sales. Black Chalk export 15% of their production – nice to see someone flying the flag for quality abroad – and a surprisingly large proportion gets sold to drive-by customers; 200-odd pilgrims (and so tours) in a typical month. Black Chalk are aiming to increase their profile to visitors by setting up a café and wine bar plus an events space in the semi/ex-ornamental vineyard.

So, what shapes these fine wines and what is their style? To be concise, Jacob and Zoë want to make wines that showcase their interpretation of the idiom of Hampshire wine.

I must make it abundantly clear that they are not trying to make Champagne-clones. Why would they? Hampshire may share the chalk of Champagne, but the climate is totally different resulting in fruit that expresses the terroir in a different style – a Hampshire style.

The Hampshire style, as Jacob and Zoë see it is not marked by the autolytic flavours, rather the flavours of the fruit and its origin.

Ripe ChardonnayFirstly, they want the wines to have an excellent, exuberant fruitiness. This is the result of the highly flavoured grapes that are produced by the long ripening period in Hampshire. These fruit flavours are very attractive and highly complex so are an ideal thing to want to express in a final wine.

Secondly, Jacob and Zoë want their wines to have the zippy energy that comes from a cool climate and grapes grown on chalky soil.

Chalky soil promotes the development of good acidity in grapes and can, if the vines are lovingly cared for and the wine made with skill, give a powerful chalky grip to the finish of a final wine.

A cooler climate means that, even given the long hang time of the fruit, Hampshire grapes will not ripen to such a degree that all the acidity is lost from them.

This freshness is enhanced by minimising the oxidation that the wine undergoes. The extraction of antioxidants from the stems during crushing helps with this.

Moreover, minimal use of oak in the fermentation and elevage of the wine prevents that micro-oxidation that happens in barrel. Just enough is used to add texture to the wine, but the level is perfectly controlled. Readers may recall I am not a fan of oxidative fizz.

Finally, freshness is achieved by controlling the proportion of the base wines that undergo malolactic conversion. The less this is used, the racier the wine. It is unusual to limit malolactic conversion in England as grapes grown here are naturally high in acid (see above) and many producers do not want screechingly acidic final wines (apart from at Ridgeview where it seems they want to make wines that dissolve one’s teeth).

The result, fizz with fresh, abundant, complex fruitiness and lively acidity. The wines are not marked by autolytic characters that are present in Champagne and they are slightly lighter, more beautiful, in style than their cousins over La Manche. They are elegant, characterful, delightfully fresh and winsomely fruity wines that are perfect for celebrating, drinking with food (the Wild Rose especially) or just quaffing when you are thirsty! They are of superb quality.

Here are my impressions of Black Chalk’s current releases:

2020 Dancer in Pink still rosé, Black Chalk: I gave this a full review here, but, briefly, it is one of a vanishingly small number of still rosés that I have thought are any good (and this is excellent) and so have enjoyed. It bursts with lovely Pinot fruit, caresses your palate with light, elegant acidity and has a chalky grip to the finish.

2018 Black Chalk Classic II white sparkling wine: The ‘II’ in the title means it is the second version of the 2018 Classic (even though it is being released first). This cuvée has undergone a little more malolactic conversion than they normally perform on the Classic fizz.

It has the exuberant fruitiness one expects from Black Chalk Classic: apples, pears, hints of stone fruit. Even with this fruity nose it smells like a very linear, direct wine.

But it is not all about all about linear, directness. It is somewhat more buxom than Black Chalk Classic normally is – not exactly bien loché, but it seems charmingly well titted out.

The extra bit of flesh works well with the intense, complex fruit making it seem quite accessible and fun. It is highly enjoyable.

There is still vivacity and freshness from the acidity and good chalky grip on the finish, but this seems to be more of a good time guy than an intense entity of upright correctness. It is lovely, I like it a lot and will enjoy the three bottles we purchased, but I think I prefer the rapier-like directness and steely focus of the standard Black Chalk Classic.

Black Chalk Wild Rose 2018 rosé sparkling wine: We did not try this at Black Chalk, so bought a couple of bottles. Purely for academic investigation, you understand, and not because we like necking high-quality fizz; oh no, not that at all!

In the glass this starts off as a tightly bound up entity that shimmers with glisks of intense, beguiling fruitiness. Letting it breathe for a minute and wow that fruitiness explodes into a powerful, dense set of hedgerow fruits.

It is dazzlingly complex and completely spellbinding, showing a much greater magnitude of effusive fruit than almost any rosé Champagne.

That fruit is refulgent on the palate, and it is charged with extra verve from great, precise acidity and a really impressive (in the best possible sense), potent, adamantine chalky grip that is so compelling you want to drink more and more just to feel that presence it has.

Truly fantastic rosé fizz, unlike rosé Champagne and far more thrilling for that.

 

Black Chalk big ones

 


We would like to thank Jacob and Zoë for hosting us and answering our innumerable questions with the patience of saints. Go and visit, if you are in range of Cottonworth, or buy direct from them online.

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