Six thousand years ago the early settlers in what was then a very cold, damp and misty island off the coast of mainland Europe, began to exploit the soft chalky Downlands in the south of that island for flint. It was there in abundance and was the first “wealth” those early settlers found here, the material they needed to make tools, and weapons for hunting.
Over the millennia those softly undulating, well drained, hills have been less productive. Relatively poor as agricultural land for the new field crops, devoid of metal ores or fine building stone, their best use was for grazing sheep, which were probably introduced into Britain by Neolithic settlers in around 4,000 BCE. Of course the large number of abandoned hill forts, perhaps from the Iron or Bronze Ages, which dot the South Downs are a sign, nevertheless, that this was one of the more habitable parts of the country, but agriculturally we had to wait until the last decades of the Second Millennium AD before this land found its true vocation.
We should probably identify climate change as the primary reason why wine grapes, and in particular the three main wine grape varieties of the Champagne Region, will now ripen successfully in most years in Southern England. We should not place too much faith in the effects of this global catastrophe, because with increases in temperature comes later hard frosts in spring and an increase in unseasonal rainfall and humidity. These can destroy the potential for a fine harvest just as much as more sunshine and an extra couple of warmer weeks can make it.
All of these factors provide hope and fear for the incredible number of operations investing in English and Welsh wine. The investments are staggering. In the 1970s there were probably around 500 acres of vineyards planted in England and Wales, and not all of those were professionally farmed by any means. The last figures I saw suggested a little under 7,000 acres were under vine by 2018, following a major planting spree on the back of English Sparkling Wine, but Stephen Skelton (The Wines of Great Britain, Infinite Ideas 2019) estimates further increases in planting of between 10-15% in each of 2019 and 2020, which would put the current figure closer to 10,000 acres planted (that’s a bit more than 4,000 hectares in our normal viticultural currency).
It’s a small vineyard by European standards, though not all that small. Switzerland, which has a few centuries start on the UK, only has around 15,000 hectares with a much larger area capable of supporting vines and we are a third of the way to catching them up. The amount of newly planted land in the south is remarkable, as is the investment. This worries me in the current economic climate.
I can credit Stephen Skelton again for some harvest figures. In 2013-2017 the harvest gave us an average of just over 5 million bottles. 2018 produced more than 15.5 million (admittedly a large harvest). Yet Skelton estimates that more than half of all vineyards planted with those three major Champagne varieties for traditional method sparkling wines do not yet have wines on sale. I hope there is a market for what may easily stretch to 25-to-30 million bottles at around £30-to-£40 a pop.
Switzerland is a useful country to stay with. The move of Swiss winemakers in recent decades from cheaper wines made from higher yields to a quality focus in order to sustain a market has some parallels in Great Britain. Back in the 1980s and 90s a great deal of wine here was sold at the vineyard gate. It was often still wine, largely from hybrid varieties, produced for the coach crowd, appealing as a patriotic product and something a little sweet (er, “off-dry”) to suit what was often an older palate. Most so-called wine aficionados would probably have largely steered clear of the genre, though there were notable exceptions, beacons of very high quality.
Today there are still a good number of gung-ho producers who appeal to the flag, though many others seeing export markets as absolutely essential to their ultimate success tone down the jingoism. It is certainly quality that will win out in what has all of a sudden become a very tough market. This is why Jacob Leadley and his team can be both proud, and perhaps a little relieved, that Black Chalk has in such a short time established itself at the very top of the tree.
Literally as I was writing about them gaining the accolade of Best Newcomer in the 2020 Wine GB Awards last week, Black Chalk was being announced as Overall Winner for sparkling wine at the Independent English Wine Awards (IEWA) 2020. As a champion of the quality of these wines from the start I am so pleased for them (and, yes, feeling ever so slightly smug, for I’ve not been shy in expressing my views over the past couple of years).
For good measure, Black Chalk also won a Gold Medal at the International Wine and Sprits Competition (IWSC)(95 points if that means anything to you).
The whole seed for Black Chalk was probably sown when Jacob Leadley left the stress of London life for what he hoped would be a more fulfilling vocation back in 2009. After studying winemaking at Plumpton College in Sussex he wound up working for the award winning Hampshire winery, Hattingley Valley. It was here that he began to establish the close and personal contacts that would give him access to grapes in order to create his own label, from small batches of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier.
Jacob’s first vintage under the Black Chalk label came in 2015, and I remember Jacob’s agent Red Squirrel Wines (now amalgamated with The Knotted Vine into Graft Wine Company) showing these wines to the press, and the justified enthusiasm of Nik and all his staff. It was an enthusiasm with which I immediately concurred.
There are two wines at Black Chalk, a Classic Cuvée and Wild Rose. The first vintage of the Classic (2015) won Silver Medals at both Tom Stevenson’s prestigious Sparkling Wine World Championships 2019 and at the International Wine Challenge (IWC) 2018. It is the 2016 Classic Cuvée, only the second vintage, note, which has won the current awards. Wild Rose is also made from all three varieties, to create a gorgeous strawberries, raspberries and cream bottle of pure delight.
These awards come at an important time for Jacob and the team. Whilst most winemakers in the British Isles spend the summer worrying about how the harvest will work out, Jacob has been fretting about whether his new winery will be done and dusted in time. The winery has been a long-term project, doubtless impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic, but I’m assured that it will be ready this week for Jacob and new Assistant Winemaker Zoë Driver to bring in the fruit (Zoë began as an apprentice at Hattingley, rising to Assistant Winemaker there, and is currently studying for an MSc in Viticulture and Oenology at Plumpton). With harvest due to start on Friday that’s cutting things fine. The winery will sit beside the already open reception/tasting room and shop in the Test Valley, near Stockbridge.
The reason the new winery is so important is that there has been another major development at Black Chalk. This is the purchase of 30 acres of their own vineyards. These vines sit in the Test Valley, increasingly seen as one of Southern England’s sources for the finest grapes, and will in future provide the backbone of the Black Chalk brand, whilst they continue to benefit from the grape contracts which have already made these wines into award winners.
You can visit Black Chalk Wines, their shop and tasting room being at The Old Dairy, Fullerton Road, near Stockbridge, Hampshire SP11 7JX. A tour and tasting costs £18pp, £28pp with lunch. Alternatively, the wines can be shipped (shipping is free for three bottles or more). Contact the team on 01264 860440, or via firstname.lastname@example.org
Their agent, Graft Wine Company, ( graftwine.co.uk ) will be able to point you towards a retailer. The 2016 vintage of Wild Rose is now sold out wholesale, so you might have to scour the shops for it, although the 2017 vintage is about to arrive imminently. The award-laden 2016 Classic is still currently available.