Phil Kemp visits the award-winning vineyard on the Hog’s Back

The chalky south-facing slopes of the North Downs provides a perfect setting to reward a small group of pioneering vineyard owners for their forward-thinking adventure, this being to establish English wine as not only a popular choice for wine-lovers but also to become serious contenders in the international wine scene.

Michael and Hilary Wagstaff took over Greyfriars Vineyard only seven years ago and have quickly and successfully transformed it from a hobby-scale outfit into a commercially successful winery – which last year produced 70,000 bottles of sparkling wine, and 5,000 of still wine. Until recently they were also managing a vineyard in Shere near Guildford, but surprisingly the couple had no hands-on experience of growing and harvesting wine prior to this, having come individually from successful careers in the petroleum industry and legal profession.

There is an interesting story as to what triggered this dramatic life-style jump, as Michael explains: “Hilary bought me a book on viticulture, written from a geological perspective by my old geology lecturer from Imperial College, and it really sparked our interest.”

“It was quite serendipitous really,” added Hilary. “Having been inspired by the book we had also just found our dream house in Puttenham, and then someone pointed out there was a vineyard up for sale down the road – literally a mile-and-a-half away. And all that happened in the same week! So, in 2010 we moved into the village and we took over the vineyard and it’s been a rollercoaster ride since then!”

The couple are supported by a hardworking and experienced team including brother-in-law David, who is their vineyard manager, and winemaker Loic who hails from France and who also has extensive experience on vineyards in Australia and New Zealand.

Greyfriars has attracted a lot of attention in the highly competitive world of wine. In 2017 the vineyard was presented with a Gold Decanter Award for their Blanc de Blancs Brut sparkling white wine, and also silver and bronze awards.

“We have received a lot of recognition including our Blanc de Blanc being selected by Tom Stevenson, the influential publisher of The Encyclopaedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine, as his favourite of over one hundred English sparkling wines he had tasted,” said Michael, adding with a proud laugh: “So we must be doing something right!”

I was eager to explore the vineyards to get a sense, not just of the scale of Greyfriars’ operation, but also to grasp just what it takes to run a successful English winery.

Standing by an impressive expanse of rows of wired vines, stretching out into the distance of this beautiful setting on the slopes of the Hog’s Back, Michael waved his hand across the landscape before us. “We have planted 60,000 vines, supported by 400km of wire on 18,000 wooden posts. The vines start to come to life in mid-April and once the shoots get up to a manageable height we trim them with a leafcutter on the side of the tractor to manage the canopy so that you can get in to harvest the grapes.”

“We also have to prepare for frosts,” added Hilary. “We can get bad ones in March but late frosts can occur well into the first or second weeks of May. You’ve seen the large pallets of what look like paint pots? Well, they’re actually ‘bougies’, the French word for candles, and we put them out in the fields, thousands of them, ready to light when we suspect a frost may strike. You could lose your crop once the buds have burst so the candles once lit raise the temperature around the vines sufficiently to prevent that.”

Looking out over the vines I commented on what I could imagine as an amazing and almost surreal sight, especially when viewing them from a distance in the darkness. “Yes, it is,” agreed Michael. “We even had the BBC’s One Show phone us up having heard about this and wanting to send out a TV crew to film it. Sadly, we’d finished the candle lighting – but maybe next year?”

The Wagstaffs also have a second vineyard site further along the Hog’s Back towards Guildford, and where I was to experience for myself the Monkshatch Cave. Literally dug into the chalk on the side of the North Downs this tailor-made cave provides a perfect controlled environment for ageing their vintage wines.

“The cave provides three-and-a-half thousand square feet of storage. We’ve currently got 140,000 bottles in here but there is capacity for quarter of a million!”, boasted Hilary. The cave, with its cold bare chalk walls and low-lighting, felt like a perfect set for a James Bond film. Fitting perhaps as the cave and the natural roof above provides the vineyard with a perfect site for their popular open days.

I am by no means a wine aficionado but my visit to Greyfriars has certainly provided a tantalising introduction to their award-winning range of English sparkling and still white and rose wines. Why not take an adventure out onto the North Downs on one of the Wagstaff’s tastings and open days? I’d be surprised if you didn’t share my enthusiasm.

Phil Kemp is a Godalming-based writer and photographer.