The 2024 harvest will be the fourteenth for Mike Wagstaff at Greyfriars and his ambition is to make each harvest “broadly the same but better.” With wines consistently winning awards including Gold for the NV Cuvée at the 2023 WineGB awards and Gold for the 2015 Blanc de Blancs in the 2022 WineGB awards it would appear that the team at Greyfriars are going from strength to strength.

I ask Mike what he feels is the added value of entering awards. “Consumers do value awards and it definitely gives you a chance to benchmark your wines against wines entered in the same category so this is always beneficial, there is also fun to be had in the competitive spirit,” he added with a smile. As a nod to this sense of fun the new tasting room is home to an awards board reminiscent of a cricket club role of honour.

The 2023 WineGB award for the NV Cuvée was a nice surprise. Mike explained: “It is not always the wine that you think will win an award that is the one picked by the judges.” For Greyfriars this means that it is not always the same wine winning the top awards but that the accolades are spread across many of the wines that they offer.

The tasting room that was a lockdown project for Greyfriars has been enormously valuable in helping them to encourage members of the public to engage not just with the wine of Greyfriars but also English Wine in general. Mike is passionate about engaging with the public and getting them talking not just about the quality of English wine but the story of English wine as well.

The light spacious tasting room has allowed Greyfriars to present tastings regardless of the weather and tasting flights are accompanied by charcuterie and cheese platters.

“One of the most common reactions from the public when we conduct tours is ‘I didn’t realise how much work goes into Traditional Method sparkling wine,’” Mike explained.

The space has also opened up possibilities for the vineyard to hold events such as flower arranging and Greyfriars will shortly be running a course in beekeeping in association with another English Beverage company Hiver Beers. Hiver based in London produces honey beer and will be placing hives at the vineyard.

We have all seen the headlines talking about how businesses are trying to encourage staff back to offices “businesses are again investing in team building and staff experiences,” said Mike and corporate events is a growing sector for Greyfriars. With plenty of parking, close proximity to London and easy access to major motorways such as the M25 it is clear to see why Greyfriars is an attractive location. Add in excellent wine and it is literally an award winning combination.

Mike pointed out that some of the events they hold provide useful feedback for the winemaking team. For members of the wine club Greyfriars offer blending courses and events. “It is easy to become focussed on what you like and want from a wine,” said Mike. “Extra viewpoints can really help us make informed decisions about blending and see different aspects of the process and what our customers might want,” he added.

The day of the visit Greyfriars were bottling and Mike explained that the tasting room was not the only project that was completed during lockdown. To increase the space inside the winery a bottling shed was built. “Bottling is not the nicest job,” said Mike. “It is repetitive, noisy and physically hard,” he continued. The new bottling room has given Greyfriars a sense of flexibility which is valued by the whole team. Bottling started in February and will continue through to June.

Greyfriars had a record vintage of 220 tonnes in 2023. The previous record was 2018 with 190 tonnes. Mike reflected on 2018 with mixed emotions. Whilst the yield was exceptionally high the length of the picking season had extended to 25 extremely long days. “By the end of picking everyone had fallen out with each other,” he joked. “Everything was picked by hand and the capacity in the winery meant that we had to stop three times because there was not enough space.” Every season produces a learning experience and Greyfriars experience in 2018 meant that by 2023 the team were ready for the challenges. “We reconfigured the winery so that we had reception tanks with rapid cooling and we expanded the cooling the capacity so we can settle the must faster. The juice has a more organised journey around the winery from pressing, through settling, through fermentation, fining and cold stabilisation.”

Alongside the increased cooling capacity Greyfriars had also increased their tank capacity with help from Core Equipment. “Core have been really good, I know it can be difficult to get people to deliver tanks on time, the problem is because we are a small wine producing country with a later harvest everything gets pushed back so for them to manage that process is great,” said Mike.

There are now three different cooling and heating circuits. “We didn’t go out and buy 25 more tanks but each year we have tweaked the system, we probably have 160,000 litres of various sizes and this year we bought a second screw capper from Core Equipment to increase our ability to produce still wine,” he added.

Alongside the steel tanks Greyfriars have between 10,000-15,000 litres of old oak barriques. “This is not to add flavour profiles but to give softer mouthfeel and micro-oxygenation which we think is really interesting,” said Mike.

Due to problems caused by Covid-19 in 2021 Greyfriars tried machine picking some of their grapes. This was so successful it has been adopted as part of the harvest regimen every year. Explaining the benefits Mike said: “Firstly you get the grapes quicker, when picking by hand it is lunchtime before a first press load arrives at the winery, with machine harvested fruit it is literally picked and into the press in 20 minutes.
We make a large proportion of saignee method rosé so whether you crush and destem in the vineyard or in the winery it doesn’t make any difference to the quality of the wines we produce.” The Willmes presses at Greyfriars are now ready for their twelfth harvest “they are serviced every year by Vigo and are still absolutely perfect,” Mike added.

“Machine picking does mean that the fruit might have to be picked a little bit earlier and you have to be very aware of producing clean fruit,” he added. The vineyard have been very well supported by Julian Searle and Ben Brown of Agrii. “The service is really great and Ben and Julian are so willing to give honest advice about everything, not just chemical purchases,” said Mike.

Not all the fruit is machine harvested and the hand picking is undertaken by volunteers. “We had 350 people over three days for the 2023 harvest,” said Mike with pride. “We send out an invitation and last year we had to shut the list after 12 hours. We don’t expect our volunteers to pick tonnes and tonnes of fruit and we get a food truck in and they have dinner at the end of the few days and everyone gets a commemorative t-shirt. Every year we do a different design.” This again highlights how Mike and his team are really putting in extra effort at every step to encourage people to get involved and really embrace not only what goes into their food and drink but also the fun side of English Wine. “People are already sending emails asking if we know when picking is going to be. Last year it started to rain at one point and I suggested that people might want to take a break but they were all really keen to carry on,” he added with a laugh.

There are some younger vines such as Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc which are not mature enough to be machine harvested. The Pinot Gris was planted at Greyfriars in 2012. “I like drinking Pinot Gris and it seemed to be a variety that works well in Britain,” said Mike. It is also suitable for adding to Sparkling wine. In 2015 the first still wines were made and have been made every year since. “If you are only going to make sparkling wine you are limiting yourself to a small percentage of the market.”

In fact 2023 was the only year a sparkling Pinot Gris was produced and the reason for that was the extra volume of fruit allowed some grapes to be dedicated to a sparkling wine. As an experiment 1,000 bottles of sparkling Pinot Gris will be produced. “That is what excites me about winemaking, the ability to make and sell on an equal basis without the constraints around techniques or varieties we can experiment and we learn sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t,” Mike said.

To add to the still wines that can be produced on the warmest part of the site Sauvignon Blanc was planted in 2015. It does not always ripen enough to produce a still wine so Greyfriars tried another experiment. Now one of the trademark wines produced by Greyfriars is a Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc simply labelled SB. “We are the only producers of sparkling Sauvignon Blanc in England,” said Mike with enthusiasm. He admitted that it is very different and therefore will not be to everyone’s taste “a bit like Marmite,” he said laughing but it has been embraced by local stockists and as it brings a different flavour profile it has become popular in cocktails in bars and restaurants. This fits with Mike’s desire to get people talking about English wine. In Europe cocktails are one of the notable growth areas in beverages so including English wine on the ingredients for speciality cocktails is another great way to introduce a growing audience to English wine.

“We realised the problem with still wine versus sparkling wine is the variation between vintages. Restaurants are put off by the vintage variation, so we decided to make a blend that we could produce every year it might not be an identical blend but it would have the same characteristics and a similar flavour profile – in essence consistent but not identical.” This led to the production of a Pinot Gris Chardonnay blend in a sufficient quantity that Restaurants and pubs will know they can always have this wine on the menu.

Looking for inspiration for the name of this new creation Mike and the team decided to incorporate some local history into each bottle. “Wanborough Manor (situated near to the vineyard on the Hogs Back) was a spy training centre during WWII. We thought it was interesting that a very high proportion of these spies were women. It was the only place where women served on the front line and very little is known about the S.O.E. division. We name each of our blends after a different female member of the S.O.E. The first wine was named after Noor and released in 2021.”

With a beautiful sense of symmetry, the land on which Greyfriars sits had at one time been part of Wanborough Manor.

A few weeks after the release of Noor, Mike received an email from someone who had been on the tour. “She said that she had enjoyed the wine tasting and loved the story, she went on to say that her grandmother had been at Wanborough and had trained with Noor and went behind enemy lines and ended up parachuting into a vineyard in Bordeaux.” Unlike so many she returned to the Surrey area and the next release was named Yvonne in her memory. In 2022 just after the release of the wine named in her memory Mike was invited to the unveiling of a blue plaque for Yvonne. The event was for about 70 people including personnel from the French and Belgian embassies. Mike was asked to bring some of the wine for the reception. At the reception there was also some wine from the village into which Yvonne had parachuted. Mike said: “The French military attaché came up to me and said he had tasted both of the wines and the English wine was much better than the French one.”

The current vintage is named Pearl with such high praise look out for the wine this year which has yet to be named.

In 2019 Pinot Blanc was planted on site and this started to produce in 2022. The blend now contains about 10-15% Pinot Blanc. So this wine is now a three wine blend.

Looking forward to the wines that are soon to be released Mike said: “2023 was a good year for still wines with low acidity so there will be a still Sauvignon produced. We also held back some Chardonnay from our older plot which we fermented and aged in barrels we produced 1,400 bottles named Goldenrod which is the Saxon name for Guildford. Typically Greyfriars Vineyard wanted to involve the community and so a competition was launched to name this Chardonnay. “We sent the email on a Friday afternoon and by five o’clock we had hundreds of replies,” said Mike. Goldenrod will be released in the next few weeks. Also on the horizon is a single variety Pinot Blanc and a still rosé.

Greyfriars is a place where community values and a sense of fun mix with exceptional talent and a passion for continuous improvement. It is a place where looking forward is as important as celebrating the past and English wine is not something that is produced but rather embraced. Its not what they do its who they are.

Photos: Martin Apps, Countrywide Photographic