A GOOD VINTAGE
On the chalk slopes of the North Downs, Mike and Hilary Wagstaff produce award-winning sparkling English wine to rival champagne
On the chalk slopes of the North Downs, Mike and Hilary Wagstaff produce award-winning sparkling wine
pop – the sound of the cork as it shoots from the bottle, followed by the fizz of bubbles racing to the surface, is one synonymous with celebration. While quaffing sparkling wine might be a leisurely pursuit, producing it is anything but, as Mike and Hilary Wagstaff, the owners of Greyfriars Vineyard, can testify. Eight years ago, they bought a scenic stretch of hillside in the North Downs in Surrey and planted more than 70,000 vines across an expanse of 50 acres. The experience was, so they found, more labour intensive than leisurely, but they were rewarded with over 100 tonnes of grapes.
Increasingly, discerning wine drinkers have become aware that English grapes can produce an end result that easily rivals its counterparts from across the Channel. (Even Taittinger has been buying plots of UK soil.) The North Downs’ geology is, in fact, very similar to that of France, with underlying chalk stretching from the Continent all the way to the Surrey Hills – meaning the soil favoured by Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes also exists here. Combine that with a mild southern climate and voilà! The perfect conditions for creating quality wine. Now, alongside the hills, hedgerows and woodlands that comprise the Surrey Downs are acres of acid-green vines, snaking over the undulating slopes as they grow heavy with ripe fruit. It might look idyllic, but it’s a technical business, the Wagstaffs attest. “If it were pure science and there was a chemical formula for developing wine, it would be made in an enormous factory,” Mike says, sampling a glass of their own award-winning 2013 Rosé Reserve Brut. “Someone would have synthesized the formula. But you can’t – that’s what makes it exciting.” Although not from a winemaking background, the pair quickly adapted to the job. Both Oxford educated (they met at Pembroke College), Hilary became a solicitor and Mike an engineer, working in London and New York before taking on the role as chief executive at an oil and gas company. This involved a gruelling weekly commute to Aberdeen from Surrey, which meant 4.30am starts – something that makes the one-mile journey he now does from his house to the vineyard all the more appreciated.
TURNING A DREAM INTO REALITY
Both wine aficionados, the couple had been toying with the idea of making their own for a while. So, when Mike’s company was subject to a takeover, it seemed like the perfect time. With little prior knowledge but boundless enthusiasm, they bought Greyfriars – a vineyard first planted in 1989 by the previous owners. They enrolled on a course at Plumpton College
in East Sussex, along with Mike’s brother-in-law David, who now acts as vineyard manager. Other than that, it was a case of learning on the job. “We’ve come an incredibly long way,” Hilary says, “The great thing about the English wine community is that everyone is relatively new to it. There’s only a hundredodd of us – and we’re all trying to promote the industry, so if one does well, we all do well.”
October is harvest month, meaning it’s all hands on deck. “We do everything and anything,” Hilary says. “It’s hard work.” Owing to the enormity of the task, the small team enlists the help of professional pickers, but they open the event with a family and friends day. While it’s a yearly highlight, their guests are often surprised to discover the hard graft involved. As Hilary points out, “Last year we invited around 70 people, who picked about five tonnes. The next day, 20 professional pickers accumulated 15.” In a laborious process lasting around two weeks, more than 90 million grapes are gathered by hand, before being pressed, fermented, bottled, capped, stored at exactly the right temperature (in the chalk wine cave they carved deep within the hills), turned, settled, frozen and corked.
While harvest is the grand finale, managing a vineyard is a yearround affair. “There are three critical periods when things can go wrong,” Mike explains. “The first is when the vines come back to
life around the middle of April. Up until mid-may, they are susceptible to frost, which can ruin the entire crop.” Only last year, the UK was hit by a cold snap in late spring, which, after a mild winter, could have spelled disaster. But the team embarked on the ritual of lighting huge candles throughout the vineyard, heating the air and thus keeping frost at bay.
BUILDING ON TRADITION
With barely a chance to blow on their hands, they then turn their minds to pollination, with flowers blooming in June. This determines how big the harvest will be, so a warm, dry season is essential. By autumn, juicy grapes should cling to the vines in abundance, but must adequately ripen before they’re picked and pressed – meaning more sunshine is required. “We are at the mercy of the weather,” Hilary laughs, giving Mike a knowing look. “I probably look at three weather forecasts a day,” he sighs.
The pair interweave traditional methods with modern technology, ageing their Blanc de Blancs in oak barrels for a creamier flavour. “They’re small and difficult to clean compared to metal tanks, but they do something wonderful to the wine.” So spectacular is the wine that when Hilary first delivered two bottles of Rosé Reserve Brut to Waitrose’s head office, she received an email asking how many more bottles they could have. Not many, was the answer, as during their first modest harvest, Greyfriars produced only 450. The supermarket took 48 and continues to stock it today. Although their yield is now much greater, supplying local shops is still a priority: “If we want to sell in farm shops, delis and independent shops, which we do, we’re at an advantage by not being in all the supermarkets, as it feels more special.”
With numerous international accolades, including Gold in the Decanter World Wine Awards, it’s fair to say Greyfriars is not only special, but helping to put English wine resolutely on the map. And that’s something worth raising a glass to.
For more information, visit greyfriarsvineyard.co.uk.
Using traditional methods, Hilary (above) and the team produce an array of sparkling wine varieties that rival the top champagnes
Duursiing fa(mlefilty) chpirloddreuncegeatntaortrray awtriandeitvioarniaeltimesethaotdrival ofthjueictoinpgcthaemgprapgenses (left). For the bottles, tonnes of grapes are sent away to be professionally pressed
Visitors to the vineyard can buy a bottle or two in the shop to take home