When Trevor Clough decided to give up a life in the City as a leading consultant to major companies across the world (including Oracle), and persuade his successful tech businessman husband to join him in a winemaking operation, he needed to present Jason Humphries with a clear vision. By the time Digby Fine English launched in 2013, the argument that - on occasion, at its best - English sparkling wine could rival Champagne had by and large been won. What Clough was determined to demonstrate was that English sparkling wine could be consistently excellent and, what’s more, have a distinctive English character.
In order to achieve that, Clough and Humphries didn’t purchase a vineyard or a winery. Instead, they set up as the UK’s first négotiant and developed relationships with the best vineyards in the prime wine counties of Kent, Sussex and Hampshire and contacted a winery. And success came swiftly, with Digby’s first vintage wine - the 2009 Brut Reserve winning best English sparkling wine at the 2014 Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships. Armit Wines is pleased to have joined Digby Fine English on its journey, taking on UK distribution in 2016 as demand for its wines has grown greater and greater.
The name Digby comes from Sir Kenelm Digby, an eccentric 17th century philosopher, privateer and inventor. Some of his innovations did not catch on - for example, “sympathetic powder”, a remedy for injuries which was applied not to the wound but the object that had caused it! And his forays into food and drink were a little hit and miss: his recipe for mead found in The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened stands the test of time; less so capons fed on viper venom. He did have one great, lasting success - Digby invented the modern glass bottle as wine drinkers know it today. Much stronger than existing bottles and coloured green or brown to protect their contents from sunlight, Digby’s bottles were the first to have a tall, tapering neck, a collar and a reinforcing, stabilising punt.
Clough and Humphries decided Digby’s was an appropriate name to attach to this English character they were trying to define, explaining: “Every aspect of our lives – our history, our temperament, our eccentricity, our irrepressible humour, our fearless creativity have all been shaped by our island nature, the unpredictability of our temperate climate, our richly varied geology.”
However, Digby is not all about eccentricity and invention - “follies and foibles; courage and curiosity”, as the couple put it. The other aspect of Englishness they seek (successfully) to express is elegance, modesty and refinement in superlative wines.
Digby’s winemaker is Dermot Sugrue. Born in Limerick and trained in environmental studies at the University of East Anglia, then viticulture and oenology at Plumpton Agricultural College, Sussex, Sugrue has worked in St Julien, Pomerol and Champagne, as well as at Nyetimber, before launching Wiston Estate in West Sussex, building a reputation as one of the best winemakers to be found in England. Known as something of a mad genius, he is dedicated to experimentation and analysis. The founders say it is his extraordinary palate that is responsible for Digby’s individuality.
It is also thanks to the close attention the team pays to its partner vineyards, growing Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. These relationships ensure a supply of the highest quality grapes, but the unusual geographical spread also gives Sugrue scope to finesse and layer the richness of flavour during the traditional method vinification.
Within the limitations of méthode Champenoise, Sugrue experiments with science and craft, to shape the wine. At harvest, grapes are hand-harvested then whole-bunch pressed with the minimum force to ensure no taille is included, only cuvée. Every bottle is marked with the exact disgorgement date as a sign of the care and precision that has gone into production.
The Digby Fine English range currently includes an pure and elegant non-vintage Brut Reserve; the Chardonnay-dominant Reserve Brut Vintage, with balanced acidity and creamy biscuit depth; the Reserve Rosé Brut Vintage, made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with lots of berries and cream and and an elevating floral overtone; and a lighter, 100 per cent Pinot Noir NV rosé with vibrant fruit character. This last is called Leander Pink Rosé, due to a partnership with the Henley Regatta (the Leander Rowing Club’s symbol being a pink hippopotamus!). All four are extremely food-friendly sparkling wines.