Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Give me wine to wash me clean of the weather-stains of cares.” Bartender, give Waldo a glass of anything he wants as long as I can change “cares” to “mud”. In late February 2020, a Hampshire countryside ride around the village of Cottonworth covered me in so much wet clay you could have stuck me in a kiln and call me Betsy. I love pottery but I don’t want to be pottery. Still, Hampshire is lovely countryside and despite being cloud-soaked and grungy, I got excited seeing acres of tidy, healthy rows of vines from horseback. I yelled though the pelting rain to the vineyard workers, “IS THIS BLACK CHALK?” “MURMURMURMUR” came the reply. “It’s grapes,” said a friend on the horse next to mine.
Having briefly tasted Black Chalk wines at a Vineyards of Hampshire tasting weeks before, I know it’s more than just grapes. Which is why, hideously slathered in Test Valley mud and walking like Der Golem (1920), I had the nerve to go into the actual shop of Black Chalk to find out more about it. You know when your boots are so encased with mud that you walk like you’ve wet your pants? That was me, leaving the horse behind and trying to get through the door without bringing clods. Wiping my feet on the hessian mat, I went leaping to the counter, dinging the bell and tiptoeing en pointe in God’s stiffest riding boots back to the mat. Before the bell’s ring had subsided, a young woman appeared. Long shiny hair, enthusiastic, assured, she smiled. I smiled back. I felt dirt smear across my teeth. I guess no wine tasting today.
Here’s a quiz: what’s made of chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier grapes?
Zoe Driver, a dark-haired force of nature wearing Ugg boots on that cold and miserable day, never planned on getting into wine. But working for Domaine Chandon Down Under while travelling, a stint in champagne, getting her WSET level three accreditation and now finishing up her Masters in Viticulture and Oenology at Plumpton means she is. Seriously. Now Assistant Winemaker at Black Chalk, it is the smallest wine producer she’s ever worked for. But she’s right – it has a “real boutiquey, artisan identity. Because we are so small, we have the luxury of being able to experiment and focus on things that excite us – there is no worry about quantity, so we can devote all of our attention to quality and innovation.”
Training with Jacob Leadley for over three years, Driver was surprised by his inclusivity. “My opinions and ideas are always asked for and considered… he would never ask his team to do something that he wasn’t prepared to, whether that’s 4am frost watches or scrubbing dirty tanks.” Sounds like taking care of horses only without the delicious wine afterwards…
…which is why I’m here. Black Chalk Classic 2016 is an incredible bottle. Here’s a quiz: what’s made of chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier grapes? Yes, champagne! But – trick answer – also Black Chalk! This is the kind of small batch English sparkling wine that you can whip out in the most judgemental snotty company and feel completely confident. Honey, bodied, firm, subtle oak/beech with some shallow chalk, it tastes richer for longer. Delicate notes are allowed to breathe to fruition, and to blend and flow throughout. This wine is saying something. You want to listen. With your lips, tongue, nose and taste buds…
This Classic 2016 is from the first vintage Driver worked on – “actually my first English harvest”. “The wine is a beautifully pure expression of fruit; it positively shines through, and the long length stays with you for some time after you have tasted it.” Reviews have been glowing.
So, my advice is to not to serve your neighbourhood wine snob this great bottle even if, deep down, it’s so hard not to want to correct their ignorance. Upon cool reflection, open a bottle of Black Chalk with people you actually like. You can send a bottle and try it together, virtually. No point wasting it on insecure drinkers. This is not a wine you want to knock back. Another reviewer said it leaves you feeling wanton. But I’m going to pretend I said that first. C