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What Makes a Great Vineyard?

Exploring How Our Surrey Vineyard Stands Out.

By Mike Wagstaff - Owner Greyfriars Vineyard.

We are often asked ‘what makes a good location for a great vineyard?’ The answer is a number of factors including; site, geology, climate, the grape varieties planted and of course the people whose hard work and dedication go into growing the grapes and making the wine – all encapsulated in that overused French term ‘terroir’.

Over the last 13 seasons at Greyfriars, we’ve learnt a lot about the site and geology here from amazingly warm years such as 2018 and 2022 through absolute stinkers such as 2012 and everything in between. While overall we think we have two pretty amazing vineyards here in the Surrey Hills, producing consistently good yields of great fruit which we have been crafting into ever better wine, it’s not been without challenges on the way and some important lessons, some learnt the hard way.

We are lucky that our two sites provide us with some pretty spectacular views.

Simply speaking our two sites are located on the south facing slopes of the North Downs known locally as the Hog’s Back which runs east-west between Farnham and Guildford. The Hog’s Back is a ridge of chalk hundreds of feet thick which comes to the surface for about 250m either side of the crest and is covered with about 15cm of scrappy topsoil which makes for pretty poor farming.

The Role of Chalk in the Vineyard

The chalk that makes up our vineyards was originally deposited in the Cretaceous period between 80 and 100 million years ago when this whole area was submerged under a tropical sea. Chalk consists predominantly of the compressed remains of plankton which settle on the seabed but also contains shells and other fossils – during the excavations for our wine storage cave we uncovered literally hundred of fossilised shells some of which sit on my desk. These Cretaceous chalk deposits extend as far south as the Champagne region in France and chalk is highly regarded as a really good geology for two seemingly contradictory reasons. At a microscopic scale, there is a lot of space between the grains in chalk which enables it to trap water around the grains which is really helpful in hot climates or during periods of drought. However, because chalk is very soft it is generally highly fractured which means it is very free draining – very important in a wet climate like England because vine hate having soggy roots.

Showing off our chalk. As we built our underground cave, we could see just how close the chalk came to the surface of the vineyard.

Chalky Issues

Unfortunately, this comes at a price. While most soil is slightly acidic, chalk is actually mildly alkaline which inhibits vines’ ability to take up some of the important minerals which they need to grow healthily in particular iron and magnesium. Since planting, we have been fighting a continuous battle with mother nature to get enough iron into the soil and the vines to ensure they stay healthy – iron deficiency is very obvious because the leaves start to go yellow.

Despite adding significant amounts of minerals to the soil prior to planting after a couple of years of grape production iron deficiency became a real problem and since 2017 we have been running a campaign of adding significant amounts of iron and other minerals every year. We spread iron coated fertiliser (time consuming ad difficult to control where it goes) , inject iron into the ground close to the vines (slow and very messy) and spraying an iron feed onto the leaves (a sticking plaster because it cures a vine’s iron deficiency but doesn’t help the soil. By analysing the soil every year, we can measure our progress, but changing the chemical composition of a quarter of a million cubic metres of soil takes time, and after four years we have brought our soil back to ‘normal’ levels of minerals. As a result, David and the vineyard team are taking a break this year from ‘iron boosting’ but are continuing to analyse the soil to see how fast the iron levels will drop back. We are also analysing the soil in more areas so we can monitor variations of soil health across different plots because it is clear that some plots are more prone to iron deficiency than others. While we have won this battle, the fight continues.

Aspect and Slope

We’ve talked about geology, but the other important factor is site and what we have learnt is that our two vineyards are blessed with good sites. Being south facing in England is important because we are at the northerly limit of where you can grow grapes. As a result, during the critical ripening period in September and October (our harvest is 4-6 weeks later than Champagne) the days are shorter and the sun lower than in mid-Summer. As a result of their slope our vineyards receive 10-15% more solar energy per square metre than a flat level vineyard. The slope also helps with soil drainage and allows frosty air to roll down the hill and off the vineyard during cold nights which reduces the risk of frost. While our main Greyfriars site is prone to frost risk, our Monkshatch vineyard has not had any serious frost issues in the eight years it’s been producing fruit – it has a steeper slope than Greyfriars and when we measure temperatures across both sites it is consistently warmer than Greyfriars. I would like to talk more about frost which is a major risk for vineyards but I will save this for another blog when we get to frost season in another couple of months. Of course, there is a drawback to steeper, it makes it more difficult to drive tractors and equipment and we have had a couple of close shaves during harvest with trailers laden with grapes.

Our slope and southerly aspect provide a perfect platform for great grapes award winning wines.

While having a good site and geology doesn’t guarantee great grapes and amazing wine, a poor site and geology makes the rest of the job much harder.

Many thanks again for all your support and any feedback on this (either good or bad) is always welcome.


Wanting to See it all First Hand?

If you ever find yourself searching for 'vineyards near me' and you happen to be in the Surrey region, we'd love to show you around and explain how we grow our grapes and turn it into award winning sparkling and still wines.

Book a vineyard tour here, Vineyard Tour and Wine Tasting.

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1 Comment

Great article.

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