In 2018 Britons drank 4 million bottles of English sparkling wine – a 6% increase on the previous year. There are now over 500 vineyards in the UK andArundel has its own investment in this burgeoning market with the arrival oft he Digby Fine English Tasting Rooms inthe High Street. Gill Farquharson went along to find out more.
‘ARUNDEL has a wow factor for people who come to visit, and it is always described as the’ gateway to the South Downs’ and the South Downs is English wine country!’ This is how Jason Humphries, co-founder of Digby wines, explains the company’s move into Arundel. It is here that you can sample a tasting flight and experience the blending and house style of which Digby Wines are rightly proud.
Jason Humphries and his co-founder and husband, Trevor Clough, relocated from Clapham seven years ago to be ‘nearer the grapes’ and also to give their 8 year old son an idyllic upbringing in the English countryside’. But when running a wine company from their home in Stopham became too much, they looked around for a suitable location. Their son attends Dorset House School, so they were already very familiar with Arundel and, when the erst while National Westminster building became available a year ago, it seemed the perfect choice.
The move allowed them to expand their storage capacity and open the Tasting Rooms, which act as a retail base,an office, a Members Club Room and a corporate event venue. With the help of local interior designer EmmaWood, the rooms have been refurbished in the style of aGeorgian drawing room – typical of the era of Sir Kenneth Digby, their namesake, of whom more later.
Trevor and Jason met in Boston. Jason was an English born data scientist with a PhD from Cambridge in Speech Recognition. He had moved to Boston 1999 towork for a new start up called Nuance, who are nowa leading speech recognition and artificial intelligencesoftware company. ‘At that time it was a very newindustry but now of course we’re all used to havingGoogle, Alexa and Siri, which was one I worked on,’Jason explains. Trevor, an American born in NewHampshire, attended International High School inGermany and then graduated from Brown Universitynear Boston. He was working as a business strategistin Boston when they met. When Trevor decided to doan MBA at London Business School the couple movedto London, with Jason still working for Nuance but ina European role. Trevor worked for Oracle in BusinessStrategy after finishing his MBA. They obtained theirCivil Partnership in 2007.
Gradually they began to think ‘how cool it would be towork together,’ Jason explains. ‘We knew we wanted todo something in the hospitality space, so we looked atvarious business models – concierge services, hotels –all sorts of things.’ It was on a trip to Washington Statethat the idea of a wine venture really took root. ‘It has acool climate, is very good wine making territory and verysimilar to here and it’s all about sparkling wine – PinotNoir, Chardonnay. We visited a winery called DomaineSte Michelle, a wine producer who had built thisamazing wine estate with a chateau and amphitheatreon the site for theatre and music and a membersclub.’ The visit got them thinking about English wines. ‘We knew the English were producing good sparklingwine but how come we didn’t see it on wine menus inLondon? It could only be because it wasn’t as good aseveryone says or they had problems getting it to market.So we came back and did the research.’ This involved alot of blind tastings against Champagne. Time and again the English wines won so they decided they wanted to create something very English and representative of the terroir of England
Their extensive research in the wine industries both here and in the States highlighted the need to reallyunderstand the market and what it wants. Planting a vineyard as the start point would take years to knowwhether or not that vineyard will produce good wine whereas many of the major houses in sparkling winesare blending houses with a diverse set of fruit. Thiswas the route they chose, and they produced their first vintage in 2009.
They are partnered with a number of local grape producers. Their wine maker is Dermot Sugrue who used to work at Nyetimber and now operates out of the Wiston Estate in Washington. Jason says, ‘Dermotreally understands how to make wine in England with the specifics of the country and grapes.’ Trevor turns out to have a very good nose and palate and has frequently succeeded in blind tastings beating many experts. Henow works as Head Blender alongside Dermot.A great deal of time and effort has also gone into the lookand feel of their wine. One of biggest early decisions wasto employ a design agency which, although expensiveat the time, was really worth it. ‘We chose Big Fish inChelsea and they had just done the very successful designwork for Sipsmith Gin, who recommended them highly.The resulting bottle design has a luxurious English feel –the purple on the inside of the foil, the triangular labeland the name being extremely important elements’. Thisis where Sir Kenelm Digby features again. He inventedthe wine bottle in the 1630’s in England, revolutionisingthe wine industry in the process. He was a privateerwhose wife, one of the great beauties of the day, diedin mysterious circumstances. His father was involved inthe Gunpowder Plot and hanged, drawn and quartered as a result. Yet Sir Kenelm was a very popular figure inLondon society. His bottle invention solved the problemof wine going off in barrels. The distinctive triangular labeldesign on Digby wines reflects the triangular shape of theoriginal, hand blown ‘shaft and globe’ glass bottles.Production is heading to 120,000 bottles per year.Digby wines are now stocked in Selfridges, Fortnumand Mason, Harvey Nichols and Waitrose. They are alsoavailable all over the world. They export to the Statesvia The British Bottle Company which is owned by RedJohnson (son of author and wine expert Hugh). Theyalso sell in Japan, New Zealand, Australia and the Nordiccountries but the States is by far their most importantexport market.
So what of the wines themselves? They sell well in theUK, particularly in London but increasingly all over thecountry. Leander Pink (named for the Leander RowingClub in Henleyon-Thames whichreceives a donationto their trainingAcademy from everybottle sold) is aparticular favourite inthe Thames Valley andother rowing centresaround the country.But all their wines dowell in tastings.Jason explains: ‘The terroir in Sussex mirrors that ofthe Champagne region in northern France. We havethe chalk and greensand which makes the perfectcombination for sparkling wine. It’s not too sunny andwarm – just like northern France.’ While the wines aren’tcheap, they are winners. ‘Maintaining the quality ofthe product has always been our driver. Sommeliersunderstand this because they realise that you get justas good quality from our wines as you might from avery expensive Dom Perignon or Krug – wines we havebeaten in blind tastings.’
.They regularly win trophies and medals in winecompetitions. Recently they attended an Awards dinnerorganised by Tom Stevenson – the world’s leadingauthority on sparkling wine – and they were awardeda Best in Class trophy for their 2010 Vintage ReserveBrut style wine and they have also been shortlisted foranother Trophy at the same event. (At the time of goingto press, the winner had not been announced.)
.In just a few short years, Digby Wines has establisheda successful brand, gained a place on the shelves ofupmarket distributors and retailers and is winning awardsat major wine events. Why not drop into the TastingRooms and see for yourself what makes it so special?
Visit Digby's listing...