English. Sparkling. Wine. How often do you see those three words on a menu and think, I’ll have one of those?
Probably rarely. More likely, never. You see English wine has an image problem. Because let’s be honest, despite the ever-increasing threat or global warming, the English countryside is not enjoying a Mediterranean climate. The geography lends itself more to cider and beer production than wine.
Yet a group of entrepreneurs have gone above and beyond the cause to launch the first premium English sparkling wine. Digby Fine English will release its first vintage in August with the Digby Fine English 2009 Reserve Brut and 2009 Rosé Brut. With a guide retail price of £32 and £35 respectively, it’s not trying to compete with the Krugs of this word, but is distancing itself from the prosecco and cava crowd. And already they have scooped silver medals in the Decanter World Wine Awards and the English & Welsh Wine of the Year competition 2013. While this mightn’t sound like much, it is testimony to the fact that the core product is good. Or is it?
Well that’s what I had to decide when the Digby gang invited various members of the press and trade to try their wares. CEO and co-founder Trevor Clough has created the wines with Dermot Sugrue, winemaker at the boutique Wiston Estate Winery in West Sussex. They source pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay grapes from vineyards across English Wine Country, and the Traditional Method achieves a richness of flavour and texture in the wines. As someone who is very comfortable in the Champagne part of the drinks market, and has had good experiences with English white wines (not quite so with the reds) I was cautiously optimistic. The 2009 Reserve Brut was the stronger of the two – it had the crispness and bite that I would expect from a mid-range Champagne. The 2009 Rosé Brut was very quaffable, but didn’t quite have the depth of flavor that I would expect from Champagne.
But more fool me, as they are not Champagnes but Sparking Wines, and very good ones at that. They are both eminently drinkable and of a good quality. But I would probably want to benchmark it against other sparkling wines before I committed to the spend. But this is a challenge which the English wine industry does, and will continue to face, until we can accept it as a creditable wine producer. A marketing manager I spoke to at the event summed it up wonderfully, when she said that most people’s reaction to English wine is one of pleasant surprise. "It’s actually quite nice", is a common phrase after a tasting.
So English Sparkling Wine has a little way to go before it wins over the public’s hearts. But if the Digby team can maintain the quality and promote it with the same aplomb with which they launched, it has every chance of success. And perhaps the next time you see those three words on the wine menu, you will answer; "Actually, I just might."