Spotlight on Greyfriars Vineyard
Greyfriars are a vineyard in Surrey, and they make some of our bestselling wines at The British Wine Cellar! I still remember the first time I tried their wines - the first one was the Blanc de Blancs (my mouth actually watered just writing that!). It's fresh and zesty, with great acidity, but it's got such gorgeous, toasty complexity to it as well. It's so moreish - we enjoyed it in the garden during a sunny afternoon and it was absolutely perfect.
We caught up with Mike from Greyfriars Vineyard to find out more about Greyfriars and their wines!
Mike, thanks for spending some time with us! Please, tell us about you and Greyfriars Vineyard!
Greyfriars is located on the sunny south facing chalk slopes of the Hog’s Back (the North Downs) at Puttenham, just outside Guildford in Surrey. The original vineyard was planted in 1989 and since taking over in 2010 Hilary (my wife) and I have expanded the area under vine to 40 acres on two sites, focusing on producing great English Sparkling Wine. We have also built a state of the art winery and a natural chalk underground cellar for ageing our wine prior to release.
We do everything from grape-to-glass, and we produce a range of sparkling wines reflecting the unique local soil conditions, climate and heritage of the Surrey North Downs. We also produce small volumes of exciting still wines. In terms of global scale we are tiny but would consider ourselves medium-to -large amongst English producers.
How did you come to own the vineyard?
I spent most of my career in the oil and gas industry but in 2009 the Aberdeen based company I was running was taken over, which gave my wife and I the opportunity to do something completely different. Getting into the wine business was something that we had been interested in for a number of years and we spent some time researching the industry to see if it was a viable opportunity. About the time we concluded it was, the opportunity to acquire Greyfriars came up which at that time was a ‘hobby‘ scale vineyard but with significant room for expansion. At the same time we found the house of our dreams about a mile a half away in Puttenham. Some things are clearly meant to be!
What’s special about growing vines in Surrey?
Surrey’s a big county and not well known for being great farming country, however, the North Downs which run across the county from east to west are amazing winegrowing country. We and most of the other Surrey vineyards are situated on the south facing chalk slopes of the North Downs which receive more sunlight, are free draining, less prone to frost and give Chardonnay and Pinot Noir great minerality – what more could you want. In addition, what we have also found is that we are close to London with easy access by road or rail which is very important for our wine tourism operations.
Tell us about your wines!
Over 90% of our plantings are three traditional Champagne grape varietals; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier reflecting our focus on producing traditional method sparkling wine. However, we also have small plantings of Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc and produce still wine which seem to be working.
We released our first wines in late 2013 and early 2014 in tiny quantities and have expanded our range since then and are now selling a total of 9 sparkling and 4 still wines. This probably sounds like a lot for a small vineyard but our sparking wines are designed to cater for different palates and price levels. They are all great (I’m biased of course because I made them!) and we have won gold medals across the range in major international wine competitions.
If there is a common theme, our mission from day one has been to produce great wine at an accessible price which definitely resonates with our customers. In the vineyard, every year we try to produce the best possible grapes we can and minimise the intervention in the winery to allow the fruit to do the talking.
What is the most unusual pairing suggestion you’ve ever tried with wine, and did it work?!
I asked the team for suggestions for unusual pairings using our wine and the most unusual was rabbit and our Cuvee Royale, which is very bold and complex for a sparkling wine. Apparently, there was no science in the pairing, the diners liked both the dish and the wine so why not have them together! Sometimes It’s really easy to get overly complicated about food and wine pairings when it’s really about having fun.
Lots of our customers make comparisons between English Sparkling Wine and Champagne. And there are now Champagne houses who are starting to buy vines in England to get a piece of the English wine action! Do you think English Sparkling Wine will ever be as popular as Champagne? What do you think makes it different?
The fact that several Champagne houses have established vineyards and wineries here is the ultimate compliment that we can produce serious sparkling wine in England. However, I think it will be many years before we can compete directly with Champagne on the global stage – Champagne after all has had several centuries head start on us! English sparkling wine is definitely as good as Champagne it’s just different and increasingly we are developing our own style. My ambition for our industry is that English wine will become sufficiently popular that it becomes one of the first wines that British wine drinkers naturally think about in the same way that most people gravitate naturally to Scotch whiskey, local gin or local beers.
Because there was virtually no British wine production the UK has become probably the most international and competitive wine market in the world which has been great for consumers. However, it means that British wine producers have to persuade the public to change from whatever they are drinking now to drinking ‘local’. We can only do that one consumer at a time and very often the hardest thing is to get people to try English wine for the first time.
One of The British Wine Cellar’s bestsellers is your Chardonnay. Why is still English Chardonnay unusual? What makes yours different?
English Chardonnay is great because it is generally lighter and fresher than many warmer climate varieties and exhibits more pronounced citrus and appley characteristics which I really love. We have only made still Chardonnay in two exceptional years and in very small quantities. Our 2018 which is out now was made from the 30 year old vines in our original ‘Old Plot’ and is unfined before bottling which means it has a slight ‘spritz’ on opening the bottle which is unusual but reflects the fact that this is as natural as we can make it. I’m really glad the British Wine Cellar’s customers are enjoying it.
What first got you into wine?
Like many people, as I got older I became more interested in what goes into producing our food and drink but it was Professor Richard Selley who first got me interested in the possibility of actually producing wine as a business in the UK when he published a book on the geology of winegrowing in the UK in the mid-2000s. He had also taught me geology at Imperial College in the 1980s and was one of the people that had convinced the White family to turn Denbies into a vineyard a few years later. As a result, he was inspirational in convincing us that you could have a viable business producing wine in the UK. What was really amazing was to welcome Prof. Selley to Greyfriars a couple of years ago with the Mole Valley Geological Society of which he is the Chairman Emeritus.
What has been your favourite moment since acquiring the vineyard?
There have many great moments and a few lowlights of course! One of the things that always makes the hard work worthwhile is when we get really good feedback from our peers in the industry. Most of the time we are stuck working away in our own vineyard or winery and you don’t have a sense of the bigger picture. We always consider ourselves a scrappy little newcomer to the industry and to be recognised by tour peers is always special.
What, in your opinion, is your biggest challenge, and the biggest challenge facing all English vineyards at the moment?
Of course COVID is a challenge but it’s everybody’s burden and we are not suffering as badly as some industries. As I mentioned earlier, we obviously have a huge potential market in the UK and the biggest challenge for all of us British wine producers is to get the British consumer to adopt English wine as ‘their drink’ in a crowded market. I think we can only do that by producing the right products at the right price points and really selling the British/local story. It will be a challenge but I firmly believe it’s possible because I think everybody would rather drink a ‘story’ than a generic bottle of wine.
Do you have any plans for the future of the vineyard?
We have no plans to expand our vineyard or winery at the moment and in fact we have been selling small volumes of surplus grapes for the last few years, which will give us the capacity to expand production as required. Last year we pulled up some early ripening Pinot Noir which wasn’t really working and replaced it with more Pinot Gris and a small amount of Pinot Blanc which will be an interesting experiment once it starts producing fruit in year or two.
The area we have been focussing on particularly is wine tourism and we have significantly expanded our tours over the last couple of years. Despite the restrictions caused by COVID, we can’t seem to run enough tours and tastings and there is a definite surge in interest in local wine. We are also close to completion of the construction of a brand new tasting room which will enable us to hold more events year round and welcome more visitors to the vineyard.
How has lockdown affected you?
There’s no denying that this year has been a tough year for everybody. Since the majority of our sales were going to the trade, lockdown in March had a huge impact on sales volumes but our online sales increased dramatically (admittedly from a small base) which has helped. Despite the challenges looking after the team at Greyfriars has been really important. While we unfortunately had to furlough most of the team for a few weeks at the beginning of lockdown, they have all been fully back at work since early May and have actually increased the size of the team. I have been amazed by how everybody has mucked in to get things done in the vineyard and winery which has both broadened their experience and helped build team spirit.
Mike, it's been brilliant speaking to you! Thank you so much for your time!
Greyfriars wines can be found here - shop the range of award winning English wines now!