On the chalk slopes of the North Downs, Mike and Hi­lary Wagstaff pro­duce award-win­ning sparkling English wine to ri­val cham­pagne

Country Living (UK) - - Contents - Words by sarah bar­ratt pho­to­graphs by clare winfield

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.


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

"In the English wine com­mu­nity, there's only a hun­dred of us. We all try to pro­mote the in­dus­try-if one does well, all do we'll"

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.


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.

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

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