It was a holiday in the States that first inspired Trevor Clough and Jason Humphries, co-founders of award-winning Digby Fine English, to leave behind the corporate world and create some of the best sparkling wines in England, using a portfolio of complementary vineyards. Here, head blender and CEO, Trevor, tells us how a brand was born
How did you come up with the idea for Digby Fine English?
Both Jason and I had been working in the corporate world for years and were looking for inspiration for a new business idea. We knew that we wanted to do something creative around hospitality, and over the years we had come up with idea after idea, but none of them had any legs.
That was until we were on holiday in Oregon and Washington visiting some wineries. We turned up the tree-lined drive of a winery called Chateau Ste. Michelle, just south of Seattle, which makes cool climate sparkling wines, and it just hit us: “English sparkling wine: it’s supposed to be good, maybe very good – I wonder how good the marketing and the strategy behind the companies really is.” And a seed was born.
How did you turn the concept into a business?
We came back, tried lots of sparkling wines, some of which we absolutely loved, and we looked at the labels and the branding. The next thing we did was go to Napa in California, where there are ten sparkling wine houses. We contacted them all and nine agreed to meet us. My day job at that time was as a strategy consultant and all about interviewing people, so I was used to asking lots of questions. We came back with the business model that we have now as England’s first pure negociant. It’s a standard business model outside of England but we’re the first ones to focus on it in England: we believe that the way to produce the best sparkling wine in England is to carefully build a portfolio of complementary vineyard partners, then focus on achieving the perfect blend.
When was your first vintage launched?
Our first vintage was from the 2009 harvest and we launched that in late summer 2013. The three wines that we have launched are the Vintage Reserve Brut and the Vintage Rose, and since earlier this year non-vintage Leander Pink.
What special qualities does blending give the sparkling wine?
You want every sip to bring people on a whole ride, from the moment they take it into their mouths, and how they savour it, to the taste after they swallow. So when critics are assessing a sparkling wine blind, they are looking for wines that have personality, balance and subtlety, and have something to say all the way through. If the wine just has a big nose but is flat in the mouth or bitter on the finish then you’re not there. This is what blending gives. It allows me to take the best of England but then to build a story in every glass.
How did you come to choose the vineyards you work with in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire?
In our first year we travelled a lot, contacted and met about 50 different vineyards, spoke to a lot of experts, read a lot of books, but most of all we talked to people. It’s a young industry and so it’s all about building the right relationships – so we built up our view about what we were looking for in terms of style and also very much the partners and people we wanted to work with. The idea was to start small, say with a one-year or two or three-year agreement and if the relationships worked out well we’d consider a 20-year contract, which is what we are finalising at the moment. We’ve been building up slowly and patiently a portfolio of partners and what that this has done has been magical.
You are head blender at Digby Fine English. What does this entail?
We have a trained, certified and extremely experienced winemaker called Dermot Sugrue, who makes the wine on our behalf, and I am head blender.
It’s our company, our brand, our style, so I have a view about what I want our house style to be, and where it’s going. Each one of the blends is almost like a child – it has a specific character and personality and each year is a little bit different with a different expression that represents the best of that personality. Dermot vinifies each of the separate parcels of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier from our vineyard partners and I taste them as berries straight off the vine, as juice coming out of the press, as base wine, which is then just fermented, all the way through the first eight months of its life post-harvest, so I’m very active in tasting the tanks and barrels. My brain thinks it terms of structure first, and then once I have the structure, which in our Reserve Brut is provided by a Chardonnay backbone, it’s all about building up the layers of amazing flavour.
How much does the Englishness of your wine shine through?
When I’m tasting all the base wines, the first thing I think of is England. It’s important that it just tastes like England and has this freshness, energy, and also potency to it. Underneath that freshness there is a real richness, which comes from the weather in the South East, which gives us a long growing season – the more time you have for the grapes to ripen, the more flavour they develop. So it’s ideal to have the weather that we have. Secondly, it comes down to the chalk. It all starts with the white cliffs of Dover; the chalk gives you this rich minerality and backbone.
How did you settle on the brand name Digby?
We named our company after an unsung hero of English history, Sir Kenelm Digby, whose pursuits in the 17th century included those of scientist, cookbook author, philosopher, pirate and his wife, Venetia. The clincher was that he invented the modern wine bottle here in England in the 1630s. Before that time, wine was transported in barrels because glass was too weak, but Digby invented a new, coal-fired manufacturing process and bottle design that was up to the job. It’s an incredible contribution that he has given to the world but almost nobody has heard of him.
You have scooped a host of awards. Can you tell us about them?
Vintage Reserve Brut, our flagship blend, has won Gold medals in four different competitions including Decanter and in one of the competitions it went on to win the trophy for the Best Sparkling Wine in Britain.
Where can you buy Digby Fine English in the UK?
We launched in Selfridges and are also with Harvey Nichols, Fortnum & Masons, Vagabond Wines and Hedonism, as well as in hotels such as the Dorchester Hotel and the Berkeley. And of course on our website.
You launched Digby Fine English Leander Pink Non Vintage in partnership with the world-famous rowing club. Can you tell us about that?
If you row in Britain and want to row for Britain in the Olympics then Leander Club is the club that you want. They tend to supply the majority of our Olympic rowers and have more Olympic medals to their name than any single sport club in the world, so this partnership is quite, quite special. The relationship that we’ve built with them starts with a six years’ strategic partnership and they have the wine exclusively at the moment, including serving it in Leander Club during Henley Regatta. The sporting sponsorship will stretch across the Olympics in 2016 and 2020 as well as Leander Club’s bicentennial celebrations in 2018.
What next for Digby Fine English?
Excitingly, we are coming up to commercially launching our first non-vintage Leander Pink to the trade, inspired by Henley Regatta, so that every bottle sold in restaurants and wine bars and wine shops will benefit the young rowers in the Leander Academy. We will also be coming to a lot more restaurants, bars and hotels and then a big part of our plans is building the brand through export, so we are hard at work with a potential export partnership.
We’ve now been in the market for two years and it’s time to take another step and expand our presence in more special and amazing places, and also to do more quirky and fun events. We’re always looking for ways in which we can bring Digby to people in a personal way and bring the brand to life.
For more information, visit Digby Fine English