If you’re yet to run into Digby Fine English co-founder Trevor Clough, then you are probably not spending enough time in London’s most glamourous dining rooms, or cheering on Leander Club beside the river in Henley. And you won’t have met one of English wine’s most articulate and engaging personalities.
We spent a couple of hours with Trevor at Digby’s tasting room in Arundel, West Sussex, just a few weeks ago. Despite having landed that morning on the red eye from New York, he was so full of energy and quotably pithy views on the English wine scene, that we left with enough material to fill out a profile ten times over.
The main thing, as we learnt from Trevor, is to not mention ‘the C word’. You know, the market incumbent. That other sparkling wine region across the English Channel. The innovator (though not inventor) of the traditional method. You know – Champagne!
Sorry Trevor. We won’t do it again.
Digby didn’t start out owning vineyards and doesn’t have its own winery. Trevor describes Digby either as a negociant, or a blending house, which in France is a wine producer that buys in fruit to make wines under their own label, sometimes to complement supplies from their own vineyards. Burgundy’s Louis Jadot and Joseph Drouhin are two notable examples.
This might strike you as going against the traditional marketing story of the small artisan farming his own vineyard and making his own wine. Yet in Digby’s case, the results are world class – and, for a change, world class is no exaggeration.
An early vintage beat Krug and Dom Perignon in a blind tasting organised by Steven Spurrier. More recently, Digby’s 2013 Vintage Reserve Brut picked up 4 trophies at 2023’s WineGB Awards, including for overall Supreme Champion. We tasted it recently and, while it is already sumptuously rich and drinking beautifully, it could easily be tucked away in the cellar for another decade. So, yeah, world class.
“Have you ever had it?” Trevor asked him.
“No,” said Jason.
“EXACTLY!” Trevor responded.
Trevor and Jason were a successful, double-income, child-free couple living their best lives in London. Both with professional jobs. Both eating and drinking out regularly. Both loved to visit winemaking regions whenever they went on holiday. And yet nobody had ever marketed English sparkling wine at them. Sparkling wine from the market incumbent – of course! Everywhere they went served sparkling wine from the main incumbent! But where was the English sparkling wine?
The context was that Trevor and Jason had for some time been discussing exiting their succesful corporate careers and setting up their own business together – they just hadn’t been sure what to do. Yet neither of them owned a vineyard or knew anything about making wine.
For many, this would have been the end of the discussion. But not for Trevor and Jason.
Since one half of the partnership hadn’t tasted the product before, the first thing was to work out if English sparkling wine was even worth getting into. As Trevor saw it, there were two reasons why they might have heard so little about it. The first hypothesis was that the wines were fantastic, but there was no marketing because it was all too early. The second was that the wines “might actually be a bit shit.”
So, after they got back from holiday, they “did blind tasting, after blind tasting, after blind tasting,” inviting friends over and comparing English wines against traditional competitors. Often, they’d have to do huge trips to find and pick up a few bottles of English sparkling, “whereas the French wines were in Sainsbury’s on Clapham High Street.”
Trevor continued, “in all those tastings, the quality of English sparkling wine shone through in the glass. Between all those sets of friends that joined us, 8 or 9 out of 10 preferred the English wines.
“There was something about their energy and personality. Being balanced and elegant. Both our climate and small volume winemaking was already standing up compared to the incumbents.
“The first hypothesis was correct – quality was outstanding. But as soon as you took the wrapping off the covered bottles for the blind tasting, the English wines looked like drab country-bumpkin cousins compared to the French.
“So, Jason and I looked at each other and said, ‘we need to get our glitter on boys!’”
“We could see that there was a gap in the market for someone to bring adventure and joy and sex appeal and a naughty sense of humour into English wine – and that’s how we began our journey into the English wine industry.”
So, tickets were booked, and off to Napa they went.
“Why not the C******** region?” I ask.
“It was so obvious to us!” Trevor replies.
“In California they went from having no sparkling wine to a very well-respected sparkling wine category in the face of the incumbent. We like the Californian model, and the entrepreneurship, and the chutzpa!
“We’ve never really looked to France for our inspiration. The Napoleonic approach is a great gift if you had it happen to you 200 years ago. But you can’t go to British farmers and tell them what to do. It’s not how we do things in this country.
“The Californians taught us that building a luxury wine brand is not about the packaging – it’s about the wine, and that starts with the grapes. Do not ever forget it. You have to deliver babycakes!
“The Californians also taught us that quality isn’t about having your own tanks – but in having a great winemaker with years of experience. Winemaking in England is a white-knuckle ride – the vintage variation is huge! Having experience of this is key.
“So, we knew that we had to figure out the best vineyards, and we had to figure out the best winemaker.”
“When we got back from Napa, we set off and tasted across a bunch of different English vineyards. We were looking for fruit on the vine, base wine, wine with no age, wine with age and so on. The more information we could get, the richer view we could get on vineyard site, and we developed a way of categorising vineyard quality, which didn’t exist before. We developed our ideas of chalk vs greensand vs clay, and the role they play. To a lesser extent Kent vs Sussex vs Hampshire vs Dorset. We now have a family of growers across that spread.
“In 2018 Hilden Vineyard in Kent came on board to supply Pinot Noir – and its fruit was so much better than any other Pinot were buying. So much so that, 18 months ago, we bought it!”
So, what about finding an experienced winemaker?
“The best winemaker at the time was Dermot Sugrue, working at Wiston Estate. He is a pristine purist.” At this point, Trevor breaks off to do a fantastic (and entirely respectful and loving) Dermot impression: “don’t talk to me! I’m talking to the grapes!”
“He’s about showing the excellence and individuality of every parcel,” Trevor explains. “That’s perfect for me! As the master blender, I want each of my paint colours to be a pure representation of what they are. It’s my job to select the different colours and paint with them and bring them together.
“Yes, you need the brand story and the packaging, but first you must deliver balance, elegance, finesse, length, scale, personality, and typicity. You’ve got to deliver all those things in the glass. And you have to deliver them consistently through time.
“That doesn’t mean that the wines should all taste the same. Consistency isn’t in taste. That’s boring! Consistency in taste is a mass manufacturing outcome. But the wines must be consistent in quality, and that’s about having world class grapes, world class winemaking, and someone that brings all that together.”
It’s a great philosophy, one which should be inspiration to anyone seeking to making world-class wine in England. Yet wine is something that must be opened, poured, and tasted – as Trevor himself says, “you have to deliver babycakes!”
Fortunately, there’s absolutely zero doubt that Digby Fine English does indeed deliver. 2023 marks the ten-year anniversary of the house’s first release in 2013, and rather appropriately, Digby released a 2013 Vintage Reserve Brut to mark the occasion.
It is sensational. Effortlessly rich, textured, complex and elegant, it tastes like an English take on Pinot-dominated prestige wines like Bollinger’s Grande Année. It won four trophies in 2023’s WineGB awards, including overall Supreme Champion. It seems insanely good value at £45 per bottle, and isn’t alone in this respect in Digby’s range, which is stacked with superbly well-balanced, elegant, and well-priced sparkling wines.
With wines like these, why would you ever buy wine from C******** again?
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