Black Chalk – Building a Wine Business

Business partners, Jacob Leadley and Andrew Seden, are ten years ahead of their projections for their business venture, Black Chalk, after sourcing a fund of £1.5 million and finding the perfect site to build a winery. Their plans include a tasting room for visitors, complete with spiral staircase and large double glass doors overlooking the cleverly planted circular vineyard, which will make for a serene event space. 

Black Chalk is the label created by Leadley whilst working as winemaker at Hattingley Valley. The grapes for the vintages of 2015 – 2018 were originally hand selected from vineyards across Hampshire. Since then, he has taken over the 12ha vineyards of Cottonworth, grown by Hugh Liddell, a viticulturist and winemaker, who honed his craft in Burgundy.

It transpired that the project turned out to be bigger than Jacob had initially planned. His primary goal was to find a site where he could build a winery to continue making Black Chalk, plus craft wines for other labels. As conversations with Hugh unravelled, it became clear that the best solution was to take over the entire site, vines included. This would allow Jacob to fulfil his vision, plus continue to progress with the years of hard work Hugh had already undertaken.

Since starting the building work, Jacob has since had more requests for contract winemaking than he can fulfil. “I would need a winery four times the size if I were to accept every request”, he says. He has since come to the decision that he will work with those who are invested in the winemaking process, who share his enthusiasm for the art.

Current winery status as of this week, photo with thanks to Jacob

Like all great leaders, Jacob was keen to acknowledge that making wine is all about teamwork. Every person from the vineyard to the bottling has had a helping hand in making the wine. He remarked that he strongly dislikes “one person to wear the crown. Wine is never the result of just one person.” He even pays tribute to the expertise of their distributor, Graft, who take a strong stance on wine education and retelling their ‘wine story’. 

Zoë Driver, who he worked with at Hattingley Valley, was recruited as the assistant winemaker. The two appeared to be a natural fit, so much so that I assumed he’d poached her. But on the contrary, Zoë formerly applied with a CV and a cover letter, along with many other hopefuls. During our meeting, they recounted how Zoë took over Leadley’s creation of the ice wine, Entice, at Hattingley. It was the first wine for which she had sole responsibility and it won a silver medal at the 2019 Wines of Great Britain Awards.

Making ice wine is no simple procedure. First of all the grapes need to be frozen solid in a very large freezer. Then, it can only be pressed at the end of the harvest when all the other grapes have been processed, as the frozen berries must be pressed continuously for 72 hours. To make it, Zoë slept overnight at the winery, setting an alarm to wake up every three hours to restart the Coquard press.

The creation of the ice wine is just one example of how Jacob likes to keep an open mind to winemaking. As he points out, “if you are following a recipe, then you believe you already know how to make the best wine. It’s incredibly important to keep your ear to the ground, with regards to what other people in the industry are doing.” 

“If you are following a recipe, then you believe you already know how to make the best wine.”
– Jacob Leadley

When asking Zoë about what it was like to work with Jacob, she said, “he is more than a boss, he is a mentor. He gets the whole team excited and passionate, he makes you want to perform well and you feel that you never want to disappoint him.” At which point, Jacob interjected, saying that he engenders that feeling because he really wants his team to do well in their careers. He is giving Zoë the reins for her own project at the winery which will aid her to build her profile in the industry.

From listening to Jacob talk, I can appreciate Zoë’s point of view. His personality is cool and collected, and he describes each component of his wines like an artist explains the brush strokes of a masterpiece.  Each variety in the blend has a role to play; Jacob names exactly the job of each and the resulting characteristics. He also expressed his fondness for Pinot Meunier, stating that the vibrant red fruit brings a balance to the acidity. He is very careful when deciding which parcels will go through malolactic fermentation, as to retain its red fruit character. 

Jacob’s passion for winemaking and the English wine industry is truly infectious. I left our meeting feeling inspired by the achievements of Jacob and his desire to create outstanding wines which can be held up on the world stage. I very much look forward to revisiting to see the finished winery and how plans have developed. However, given the onset of the Coranavirus outbreak, it remains to be seen how soon they can implement these plans.

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Black Chalk wine tasting notes (click to read more)

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