Surrey is one England’s most successful wine producing regions. The rich limestone and chalk soil along with the clement climate are both essential components that have seen the varieties become the toast of the country. But there is a third constituent, and one that sets it apart from other counties: its producers.
Here we take a look at three of Surrey’s leading winemakers - all members of Local Food Britain - as they reveal the journey of the grape from harvest to home.
Albury Organic Vineyard was founded in 2009 by former IT professional Nick Wenman, pictured (photo - @Alburyvineyard Instagram), who decided to combine his passion for quality wine with his belief in ‘organic and biodynamic production principles’. It is a family operation, with daughter Lucy Letley now taking on the role of general manager.
Before any wine making can take place, the grapes must of course be harvested, which is done over several weeks as different grape varieties ripen at different times. Lucy says: “We are lucky to have a lot of volunteers to help us - we have a team of 50 volunteers each day, and schedule four or five picking days each harvest season. We aim to pick between two and five tonnes of grapes.
“All our grapes are handpicked and bunches are snipped off into buckets. It's not too tricky unless we have any disease on the grapes, in which case we ask pickers to cut out any mouldy ones. The perfect grape for sparkling wine is a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier.”
Lucy explains that the grapes are tested daily before harvest takes place to make sure the acidity and sugar levels are perfectly balanced. This year’s good weather has meant there hasn’t been as many affected by mould or mildew - the blight of last year’s crop. Pickers are encouraged to check the bunches before ‘popping them into the bucket’.
Once picked the grapes need to be pressed, a job that according to Lucy must be done the same day as the pick.
“They are sent off to the winery at the end of the day for the winemaking process to begin. It's exciting,” says Lucy.
In the production of its award-winning sparkling wines, Greyfriars Vineyard, a family business situated on the Hogs Back, takes its grapes from its vines in the Surrey Hills to the company’s winery in nearby Monkshatch.
According to Greyfriars founder Mike Wagstaff, pictured in his vineyard on Surrey's Hogs Back, "minimising transit time is critical in maintaining quality".
He says: “Once they are at the winery they will be loaded into our press which can hold about three tonnes of whole bunch fruit and then gently pressed to extract the juice as quickly as possible. It is allowed to cold settle for about 24 hours before being ‘racked off’ to separate it from the coarse sediment. The clean will then have yeast added to start the primary fermentation which converts the sugar into alcohol and produces the base wine.”
Greyfriars produces its wine using the ‘Traditional Method’ which was developed in Champagne to produce sparkling wine through a secondary fermentation process which takes place in the bottle the wine is sold in.
As Mike explains: “This isn’t the only sparkling wine making technique - Prosecco for example is fermented in huge tanks and then bottled - the Traditional Method is the technique used to produce all the best sparkling wines in the world. However, the downside is that this technique requires several years of bottle ageing before our wine is ready to drink.
“At the moment we are selling sparkling wine which has been aged between three and eight years. Of course this requires us to hold a lot of wine in storage in our ‘cave’ but we believe the finished product is worth the wait.”
When it comes to marketing and getting the produce to the wider public, Denbies Wine Estate in Dorking has certainly been one of Surrey’s forerunners. Founded by the White family in 1984, the first vines were planted on the estate two years later. Today, an impressive 265 acres are under production - the largest in England - which translates to around one million bottles over a range of 14 red, white, rosé and sparkling wines. They are available throughout venues in Surrey - as well as the onsite store - and in branches of Waitrose.
Aside from the vineyard, the estate has become a major tourist attraction providing not only numerous wine-based tasting events and activities but also walks, exhibitions and tours, as well as an indoor and outdoor eatery and gift shop. Around 350,000 visitors pass through each year and the business is certainly a leader of England’s wine tourism – this year it was voted Number One in The Times’s guide for overnight vineyard stays.
In many respects Denbies has acted as a trailblazer for the broader English wine industry, too, constantly pushing the boundaries of viniculture.
Chief operating officer Jeanette Simpson tells us: "We continue to seek and pursue new opportunities, with acres of the vineyard dedicated exclusively to new trials and varietals. Our 2022 harvest has been exceptional, producing a rare vintage combining very high quality and large volume. This means that we will be able to expand our range of premium still wines, for which the demand and interest is unprecedented."
This forward-facing approach has attracted countless accolades over the years, most recently for Denbies Orange Solaris 2021, which has just been awarded ‘Innovation of the Year’ by Tom Hewson for the Tim Atkin MW 2022 Special English Wine Report.
"It is always exciting to market a new wine," continues Jeanette. "This is the first time that we have produced a Solaris varietal and the award recognises the reputation that Denbies has achieved for excellence in English winemaking."