Sparkling Surrey Downs
Located on the idyllic Surrey Downs, Greyfriars Vineyard, under the ownership of Mike and Hilary Wagstaff, is looking to introduce ever more people to the delights of English sparkling wine
Article by Rupert Watkins, Photography by Andy Barnham
Much has been made of the rise of English sparkling wine. “There has certainly been a huge groundswell of interest,” remarks Mike Wagstaff of Greyfrairs Vineyard. “Even two years ago, it was tricky to sell to local pubs. Now they’re phoning us.” Certainly, Greyfriars has seen a lot of change in over the past few years.
There has been a vineyard on this picturesque part of Surrey’s Hog’s Back Hills for some years. The original plot, planted by Mike and his wife Hilary’s predecessors, is still in use; they refer to it as the “Old Plot” with some of the 1,500 vines approaching 30 years old. “The maturity gives a little more oomph,” Mike says, adding, “we prefer the lower yield that a single cane vine continues to give us.” Having grown to 30 acres, the remainder of Greyfrairs’ main plot was planted in 2011 just after Mike and Hilary bought the vineyard. The vineyard now owns two other areas, and each plot grows a selection of the main sparkling producing grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
The Wagstaff’s journey into the world of viniculture has been somewhat unconventional. Having met at Oxford, Mike’s first career was in the oil and gas world, working for both the producers and on the commodities desks of a number of merchant banks, whilst Hilary became a corporate lawyer. One gift she gave him was a book written by Mike’s Master’s Professor on the geology of Southern England. It expounded, many years before any English brands came onto the scene, why sparkling wine could be made in this part of the world. The book accompanied Mike on his many commutes to Aberdeen. Finally, their hectic corporate careers were starting to take their toll and, like many couples before them, Hilary remarks, “we realised we just never saw each other.” A successful buyout of Mike’s company allowed them to procure their ideal house just a mile and a half away from the vineyard. “Within a week, we were told about this small plot going for sale – there was certainly an element of serendipity at work at that point!” smiles Hilary.
With this background, it is interesting to hear Mike put his finger on the biggest change in English sparkling wine in the six years they have been at Greyfriars. “Professionalism is transforming everything,” he comments, “the amount of knowledge, experience and scientific and business support is now good.” He feels English sparkling wine is thus at a tipping point, “the quality and consistency are now there,” and it benefits from a now actively interested customer driving the product forward.
In Mike’s eyes, however, “the challenge remains the price – it is still too high.” As he comments, the market for sparkling wine is a pyramid, with champagne at the top. “It is very hard to compete with the big champagne boys. You are taking on 200 years of near mythological status and a century of marketing momentum.” Five euros behind the average bottle from the champagne region is in marketing. Mike feels that English sparkling wine must, and can, democratise that pyramid. Their goal is to introduce people to the joys of home-made fizz as a stand-alone, quality product rather than as a quasi-champers substitute. As such, Greyfriars prices are quite deliberately in the £18 – 24 bracket. In a world where Italian land is being ripped up and turned over to ever less consistently good prosecco (often to supply the British demand for the fizzy stuff), Mike’s view of the market is certainly a logical and targeted one that allows much scope for growth.
The total Greyfriars acreage now stands at 50 acres with 72,000 vines; Mike and Hilary have no plans to move into organic production. “The weather here is just not in our favour to go down that route. Even Bordeaux organic producers struggle every few years with a shocking year.” Where they have invested is in the winery, bottling and storage. Greyfriars’ tank capacity is 120,000 litres; 15 per cent of this is being aged in barrels that they source from Germany. Their tanks, though sourced through Germany, are actually made in Croatia. “Last summer we certainly had a bit of an issue in this area,” recalls Mike with a laugh. “Given a good harvest, we found we needed an extra tank at very short notice. I phoned up my German contact who proceeded to source one within 24 hours. He then tied it to the back of his truck, threw his wife, puppy and duty-free cigarettes in the front and headed for Calais. As his dog was too young for a pet passport, his wife and puppy stayed in Calais, he drove to us, dropped off the tank, had a coffee and a fag and headed back!”
The other major investment the Wagstaffs have, literally, sunk into the vineyard has been the storage cave, which was dug out after the 2015 harvest. Six and a half thousand tons of chalk was shifted and a green living wall constructed to keep it cool. “We used a Dutch irrigation system,” says Hilary. “The company’s largest project before us had only been about a fifth of the size of what we needed. But after a shell-shocked pause when we first told them the scope of our idea, they came up with a brilliant design!”
After so much sweat, blood and investment, what of the wine? Both their 2013 and 2014 Blanc de Blanc are excellent. Though still young wines, they are light and fresh with a pleasing balance on the palette between a fruit and mineral edge. Their 2013 Rosé, a 100 per cent Pinot Noir, is also pleasingly drinkable with lovely apple hints.
So Greyfriars continues to grow. The frosts of spring 2017 mercifully did not affect the three plots too much. “Being a couple of weeks behind France our secondary growth was unaffected,” comments Mike. “Despite the initial fears across many vineyards, nature rebounded as only it can. We took a hit on our initial growths.” The weather clearly hit many of France’s wine regions at exactly the point it eviscerated both the initial and secondary harvests, so one has to hope we see a good English vintage. The Wagstaffs will harvest in early October when the small team of six will swell to over 30. “It’s two weeks of 18 hours days,” grins Mike.
Greyfriars is, “learning as we go,” in Mike’s words. Hilary and Mike’s viniculture knowledge has certainly improved since they took over this small vineyard but clearly much of their previous experience has been bought to bear. “So much is about knowing how to build a business and so much is about telling a story,” comments Hilary. There is most definitely a story at Greyfriars. Given the name, it is unsurprising to learn that there was a pilgrim’s route through the area in mediaeval times. More recently is the intriguing local myth, as yet unproven, that the Shah of Iran lived down the road at The Sands after fleeing the 1979 revolution.
Hilary and Mike are building a remarkable business on the Hog’s Back, “it’s about building something from scratch – a family business.” And, with rather drinkable fizz as the end result, those predisposed to oenophilia should take a trip to the picturesque vineyards nestled in the Surrey Downs.
Enquires: Greyfriars Vineyard, The Hog’s Back, Puttenham, Surrey GU3 1AG / 01483 813712 / www.greyfriarsvineyard.co.uk/