Interview With A Winemaker – Zoë Driver

24th November 2023

Interview With A Winemaker Zoe Driver

Wine isn’t just made, it’s crafted by the unwavering expertise of a Winemaker, sometimes old traditions are passed down by generations and on other occasions, new people venture into the industry, introducing us to new creations, this series of Winemaker Interviews will help you uncover the vast world and skills of how the artists passionate about wine make the world a bubbly place.

In this feature we speak with Zoë Driver an amazing Winemaker from England, let’s discover a little about her time in the English Wine Industry as a Winemaker at Black Chalk Wine.

Tell Us About Yourself

“I grew up in North West London and studied English and Drama at Loughborough University from 2010-2013. I started training in all disciplines of dance at age 2, and always imagined I’d go into a job or career in the dance industry, or if not definitely some kind of media. How wrong I was! After Uni I spent a couple of years travelling the world and began to fall in love with wine in Africa, Asia, and North America. I arrived in Australia completely out of money and had two choices: ring my mum and get her to get me a flight home OR get a job to continue my travels and live abroad. I obviously chose the latter! I took a job at Domaine Chandon in Australia, starting off working in the front-of-house sector, and that’s where it all began..”

How Did You Become Involved In The Wine Industry?

“Whilst working at Chandon, I saw the guys working in the winery and thought it looked so fun and interesting, so I asked if I could maybe help them out. They offered me a job to work the 2015 harvest, which I immediately accepted, and it ended up being their biggest harvest to date! I absolutely loved my time there, and it sparked something in me that I never expected. I stayed in Australia for a year, travelled some more, and finally returned home. I then spent a few months doing ‘normal jobs’; I tried working in travel, events, and even a wine shop, but didn’t enjoy any of it so began to feel a bit depressed that all my friends seemed to have found their calling whilst I struggled. I kept coming back to the idea that I wanted to make wine – but I honestly just didn’t think or believe it was possible in the UK. I spent a few months looking for jobs to no avail until eventually I saw a job advert I applied for and amazingly was offered.

I became the UK’s first Winemaking Apprentice at Hattingley Valley Wines, which was a two year program encompassing on-the-job training, as well as education including the WSETs Level 1-3 and Plumpton College courses. Following the completion of the program, I was promoted to Assistant Winemaker and continued to help produce numerous award winning wines for a couple of years. In 2018, I made wine for Champagne house Pommery in Reims, France, which was another huge highlight and learning experience for me. In 2019 I joined my friend and mentor Jacob Leadley at Black Chalk Wines full time as the Assistant Winemaker and helped design and create our winery. In 2021 I graduated from Plumpton College with a Master of Science degree in Viticulture and Oenology that I studied for outside of work hours. This year will be my 10th harvest which just feels crazy – it only seems like yesterday I stepped into a winery for the first time and felt all the wonder I still feel today.”

As A Winemaker, What Has Been Your Hardest Obstacle To Overcome In Producing Wine?

“It’s a real lifestyle choice, one that is quite different from how I grew up and how all my friends live. Whilst they all have very glam jobs and go for mid week drinks after work in London, I’m usually covered in tartrates and mud in the countryside in the middle of nowhere! I obviously adore my job and the land where I work, but it definitely took some adjusting. As they say, you can take the girl out of the city …!

The other challenge was definitely going back to Uni to study. I was never very good at Science at school, and so to take on a Master of Science degree whilst working full time often seemed like complete and utter madness. I definitely questioned my choices on a regular basis, and felt like throwing in the towel so many times – but I’m so glad and proud I stuck it out. It helped with my theory and knowledge hugely, and therefore helped me become a better winemaker, as well as proving to myself I can do almost anything if I work hard enough and want it enough.”

How Do You Determine When Your Wine Is Ready To Drink?

“We taste our wines very regularly to monitor their progress, and for us the most important things we are looking for is quality, and that they are English in style. English wine is often compared to Champagne, obviously due to our similar soils, grape varieties, and method, but we don’t want to copy or replicate Champagne – our wine is grown in a very different climate, and has its own interest and uniqueness, and this is what we want to celebrate. We want to showcase what England can do really well, and for us, that’s purity of fruit, precision and freshness. We have no set time frames or methods for our wines, each one is treated individually and is ready when we believe it is showcasing all the above qualities to the very best standards.”

Where Do You See The Future Of English Sparkling Wine?

“I believe we grow in confidence as we continue learning and harnessing knowledge of our land, and to that end, I hope we continue to keep producing world class wines that are undeniably and proudly English. It is such a thrill to see so many English wines on wine lists across the country now – I hope that only increases and that we all collectively push forward to ensure English wine remains at the forefront of both quality and exciting new offerings.”

What Part Of The Wine Making Process Do You Enjoy The Most?

“Harvest is obviously so exciting – bringing in the precious crop we have worked so hard to grow all year, filling the winery with the smells of beautiful grape juice fermenting into wines, and that real feeling of comradery with your team as you all keep each other going during the long nights and hard graft. I also absolutely adore blending; it’s the time we get to be creative, and put our mark on the wines. We only make vintage wines at Black Chalk, and we always try to run little projects each year and experiment/push boundaries with our winemaking, so it never gets boring or feels like a ‘recipe’. I feel incredibly fortunate to work at a winery with a team that has the freedom and open minds to really create – that is one of the greatest joys of this job.”

Thank you, Zoë, for sharing your words, knowledge and experience with us and we at Glass of Bubbly wish you the very best for the future!

Images belong to Zoë Driver and Black Chalk Wine. Glass of Bubbly was granted permission to use them.

Oliver Walkey

Champagne and Sparkling Wine Writer, Focused on Bringing the Exciting and Fascinating World of Bubbly to You.