Afternoon Fizz with Digby Fine English.



“There is a mistaken idea, ancient but still with us, that an overdose of anything from fornication to hot chocolate will teach restraint by the very results of its abuse.” –M.F.K. Fisher

It brought me comfort to read that among mayonnaise and grandma’s boiled dressing, M.F.K. Fisher thought to include Champagne in a small list of items that she quite literally never could tire. I often think on my list, there would be parmesan cheese, coffee and yes, without a doubt, Champagne. The real stuff– the kind that is born in the vast chalky soils of Northern France. The kind whose story runs deep telling tales on the tongue of its making. The kind whose complexity is often considered unparalleled.

In general, yields throughout France for 2017 were “historically low” according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Frost and hail, the major culprits. High hopes for an increase in this year’s Champagne harvest conversely resulted in a decrease–9% below the average from 2012-2016.*  The climate is changing globally, shifting patterns, ecosystems and expectations… a little too quickly. Vignerons are waking up to the new normal and trying to adapt as best they can with revised vineyard techniques to protect their investments.

But I return to the dire point at hand. Champagne! It’s running out! Ok, hardly. No need to grab the oxygen tank just yet. We still see a good few hundred million bottles produced each year. We also must check ourselves when an alcoholic beverage threatens to steal our sanity.

But… to my delight (and let’s ignore this slight uptick in tone that there could exist one positive outcome of climate change), a new region is emerging… one that looks a whole lot like Champagne– that of southeast England to be sure. Extending from the chalky white cliffs of Dover, there are vineyards waking up and realizing the potential for high class fizz. England’s soils bear a striking resemblance to that of Champagne, and they are now nearly just a half a degree cooler than their French friends.**

I sat down with Trevor Clough, co-founder and CEO of Digby Fine English, this past week to taste through their line of sparkling wine, named for the “unsung hero”–Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665) who invented the modern wine bottle as we know it today. Digby was a dream born in 2009 of soil and weather–the perfect combination for so many legendary wine regions. For the better part of the past century, lesser complex fruit was grown in the marginal, trying climate in England. However, better technology, understanding and investments have inspired a new batch of artisans to coalesce around a unified vision for premium sparkling wine.

Digby focuses on winemaking, forming relationships with growers primarily throughout SE England, sourcing their Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay from Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and Dorset. Though they function as a negociant, much like the large houses in Champagne–buying their fruit to produce and blend a consistent house style–much of English bubbly comes from small growers.

We tasted through their flagship Reserve Brut from the 2010 vintage as well as both non-vintage wines (white and rose). The Reserve Brut spent four and a half years slumbering on its lees and another under cork. Dominated by Chardonnay (65%), with Pinot Meunier and Noir to counter in equal parts, this wine had beautiful dimension and balance. Its bent for romanticism was held together with a more serious expression. It had the tension and generosity of a fine Champagne but more primary fruit–a juicy quality to it. A curious minerality was said to come from the green sandstone layer of soil.

Both non-vintages were clean, straightforward and above all: fun. They reminded me of very high quality Cavas or Cremants from France. While falling short of the mystery a great Champagne or Digby’s Reserve Brut can offer, it opens up another category of enjoyment. Their rose is the epitome of this sentiment, as they are the official sparkling wine for the Leander Club– a nearly 200 year old rowing club. The foil reflects the smart dress of the British, robed in houndstooth attire with deep purple on the underside. Though they might be compared for many decades to their French competition, these details make them uniquely “Fine English.” And besides, imitation is the best form of flattery (plus, we get more fine bubbles to go around!).

English fizz can be a bit difficult to find–Digby is among the only offering in the Denver area. I went straight to the source– Harvest Wine Co– Digby’s distributor here in Denver. Here are a few places you can find it:

Restaurants: Stoic and GenuineMercantileMatsuhisa Denver

Retailers: HB LiquorsJoyCask and Craft





euro scribbles: a final day in Champagne…

Bubbles, french wine, French Wine Travel, organic wine, travel, Wine Travel

Where terroir is written in the wine when it comes to Burgundy–each parcel of land portraying its life with meticulous accuracy–Champagne’s terroir can be a little more difficult to decipher. At least for me. That is why it became so important to pay attention to each individual winemaker’s passion here. Each emphasized particular philosophies and sources for inspiration in their ‘artisinal’ work (a common word each used to describe themselves). For Goeffroy, there was a point to discuss native yeast fermentation, with Pehu-Simonet a shift towards biodynamics, both insisting upon blocked malolactic for cleaner execution of flavor. For Chartogne-Taillet, preservation of history but very progressive in his approach to find terroir in single vineyard bottlings.

The third day, we had only one appointment with one of my favorite producers: Marc Hebrart. There was no tour, rather a seat at a very cozy table and a focused tasting. Though Jean-Paul Herbrart, the current vigneron, spoke a little less English, he communicated so much in his wines and his conversation of them. For him, blending was the way to achieve complexity. He alone owned about 85 different parcels of land, each with its own personality. To keep single might drive him mad, he laughed. A good looking gentleman, you could read laughter in his face over the years. It suited him and made us all so comfortable around him. Jean-Paul explained that for him, pieces of wine are so much greater together than the sum of its parts. Having just been on the other side of the tracks with Alexandre Chartogne, we appreciated another perspective, but nevertheless remained Switzerland in our opinion, grateful for so many styles!

Here, I really finally understood the great differences between Champagne’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the tongue. The former brought me back to raspberry La Croix water when I was young (only infinitely better!). The bramble fruit of raspberry, blackberry, blueberry and even black cherry dominated the flavors. Yeastier notes were to be found on the nose. For Chardonnay, elegance was centerstage. Lemon curd, yogurt and citrus peel were the reliable traits I kept meeting. The palate carried more acid and less body. They are sort of like hearing a child with a resounding singing voice. You don’t expect power on first glance… or taste. It is felt and understood by way of experiencing it. I am a sucker for Blancs de Blanc (100% Chardonnay) Champagne. They have won me over with ease. Not the least of which, Hebrart’s 1er Cru. 

I snuck away for a night and spent a night with my guy in Reims. His race has seen very unfortunate times this past week, but it cannot be helped. These things happen. This epic, historical race sees heights and depths that range so great along the way for everyone. Sadly, their team has been given a healthy dose of misfortune so far. If there is one thing I have learned, though, about Garmin-Sharp-Barricuda, they never cease to surprise. In these coming weeks, I am certain they will come out with their heads high and their results respectful and unexpected.

We took Terry Theise up on a recommendation nearby: Le Grand Cerf for dinner. We were thrown back maybe 50 years and given very traditional service, though it seems they are attempting to modernize their cuisine. I laughed when I looked at the menu.Your choice was an 8 course meal for 75 Euro or a small appetizer and entree for nearly 100 euro to start. I guess we were to have 8 courses. Gotta love how the French make the ‘right’ decision for you if you let them. Thankfully they were a series of very small, 2 to 3 bite sensations. It gave us time to talk, catch up and enjoy a few moments in this incredible setting.

The next morning I rejoined my group and we visited Goutorbe before leaving town. They were the same folks who owned the hotel where we stayed. What we found so remarkable about this family estate was how central they were to the community itself. They had a large space where one could imagine village events taking place, weddings, lectures, seminars and community functions. They had a large movie screen where even we sat to watch a film on the history of their estate and how it began with selling rootstock and vines. The operated a lovely hotel, obviously. They seemed very involved with the local government and community happenings. We were all quite impressed!

This was certainly the most traditional of the estates we saw. Their production was a bit larger. Their formula pretty consistent from year to year: 60/40 Pinot Noir/Chard blend, 9 grams sugar dosage, malolactic fermentation. But formulas work for good reason. Tasting though the selection, I was struck by its textbook elocution of ‘traditional’ Champagne. It is precisely the kind I would use to illustrate the classical characteristics to my customers. The prices were great, too. For those trying to break out of the obvious Veuve or Moet, this would be a natural step into discovering Recolant-Manipulants, or small grower farmer fizz.

euro scribbles cont: getting down to business in the land of bubbles.

Bubbles, cycling, french wine, French Wine Travel, travel, Uncategorized

The morning is met with a rescheduled appointment, a series of unfortunate orienteering, but alas… unforgettable snapshots of memories that may not have been had we not gone off course. Not far from Ay, we visit Hautvilliers–home to the L’Abbaye of Dom Perignon. Though he did not invent these beads of beauty, he did learn how to perfect them and really grab hold of the method itself.

As we enter the cathedral, the same intoxicating smell of wet, chalky cellars fill my nostrils. I think to myself that churches should always smell so inviting. Perhaps I would frequent them daily! Classical music resounds in the space. Thin wooden benches are stacked left and right. There are massive wood cuttings one one side of the room, while renaissance murals line the other. Slate tombstones at the front before the altar commemorate the famous monk along with his scribe Dom Ruinart. I light a candle in the sanctuary and say a short prayer to my mom. I smile knowing this is as close as I might get to sharing Champagne with her. And it feels heavenly.

The church has a remarkable history, filled with strife, vulnerability and change. Since its erection in 650 AD by St. Nivard, it began its turbulent journey. Destroyed in 882 by the Normans, then restored in 1411 only to be burnt down 35 years later by the English in the 100 years war. It was consecrated in 1518, then burnt in 1562 by the Huguenots, rebuilt in 1603 and finally really restored with Dom Perignon’s presence beginning in 1672.

We press on to Verzenay, a blessed region in the Montagne des Reims that sees all Grand Cru vineyards. We meet with the consultant for Pehu-Simonet along with the son (who spoke little English). Here, we learn about their philosophies and methods. We begin to put together just how varied each vigneron really is, even if their common goal to produce high quality, small quantities are the same.

Like Geoffroy, they block malolactic. In doing so, they do not force the natural acidity to lessen. Both would agree this allows the fruit to be more pronounced, less obscured. I would agree, there was a difference to be sure– a lightness on the palate. Malolactic, much like it sounds, promotes a creamier milky body in the wine by inciting a lactic bacteria to convert the more tart malic acid levels. So here, in these wines, a linear quality is preserved. Apparently less than 1% of vignerons in Champagne block malo according to our guide, so this was very unusual that we met with two in a row!

Where they differ is yeast cultures. Geoffroy insists upon the native yeasts found on the skin and in the cellar to carry out the first fermentation. They believe it maintains the terroir of the region. Pehu-Simonet, though organic and in the process of becoming biodynamic, proudly stand by their choice to use non-native strains that are indigenous, however, to the Champagne region. For one thing, it is much less risky, and they feel confident they can repeat quality first fermentations time and again without the fear of interruption or, God forbid, a ‘stuck fermentation.’ When I asked him about possibly losing ‘terroir’, as the last winemaker insisted upon, he explained that while it may affect aromatics, that is not to be confused with terroir. Terroir, he continued, is felt on the palate. You cannot smell a region, you must taste the difference. One thing I found fascinating was that they selected much of their oak from the nearby Verzy forest (note: only their highest end wines see time in oak–most are steel or concrete). In doing that, he explained, there was another sense of local terroir added to their wines. It was all very poetic, and one thing was certain after all this ambiguity: both were phenomenal producers with distinctive styles. Where there was a note of opulence and restrained oxidation in Geoffroy’s bubbles, while a linear, tasteful reductive quality shined through in Pehu-Simonet’s wines.

We tried several wines at Pehu-Simonet, but the standouts for me were the NV Blancs des Blancs (thing lemon sorbet on a hot, sunny day) and the Blancs de Noir (100% Pinot Noir–a rare, rare thing to see), taken from the tenderloin of the slopes, beaming with dark berried fruit and coming out salty on the finish. It was difficult not to have the word ‘terroir’ beat through my brain with melodic persistence.

That, I think, is the true meaning of terroir.

Though hard to leave, we knew our next appointment would be equally interesting: Chartogne-Taillet, recently taken over by the ‘next’ generation: Alexandre Chartogne–handsome, gentle giant. He was very tall, good-looking, and he had the kindest eyes. His English was unbelievable, but he spoke with such humble hushed tones, you had to smile. Despite his quiet demeanor, however, he had an equal portion of fierce ambition to turn this 800 year old estate into something different. He seeks to shake things up in Merfy, a small village just north and west of Reims. How? In a region rampant with philosophies of blending, Alexandre is insistent that true terroir speaks through each parcel. Though he makes a famous cuvee–St. Anne– his focus is single vineyard expressions.

We spend the first part of the appointment getting to know one another. This was very important to do before meeting his cellar–a detail that I find important, as so many vignerons do it the other way around, tasting at the end. He showed us old journals of everyday notes his family has kept since 1700! He basically explained that this was important for him to understand his family’s tradition in taking over for future generations. He has a little guy of his own. Whether or not he takes over one day will be his decision. It is not forced on anyone. His son is two! Here’s hoping!

The most eye opening experience, really on this trip thus far, was sitting with Alexandre and being blind of 3 varying dosages on the same exact wine. Not only did it change the wine’s character remarkably, all four of us had extremely different preferences. One was dosed with 0 grams of sugar (Brut Nature), the others at 2 and 4 grams (Brut). Strangely, the first was the most appealing to me (and I usually like a dab of sugar to balance the acidity). The nose was almost nutty and fully enticing. The second took on a much fruitier presentation. It was favored by most. It had a fresh, vibrant quality without being too linear. Finally, the one with 4 grams, while interesting and well-received, left a very slight trace of residual presence on the palate–not in the lingering finish kind of way. To be clear, a dosage does and should vary dependent on zillions of reasons. Even a house style should listen to a vintage if something, like acid, has changed. For example, thought the sugar was noticeable in the one with 4 grams, we shortly thereafter had another wine of his–the 2006 Blanc de Blancs from the Heurtebise parcel–at a whopping 5 grams (yes, I am joking, as most ‘Brut’ in Champagne is 8-12 grams), and there wasn’t a trace on the palate. Time really integrated it, plus the acid was pretty rippin’! If you EVER have an opportunity to do this exercise, I recommend it. Tasting is truly the best teacher.

He showed us around the cellars, tasted us on pre-phylloxera 100% still (not fizzy) Pinot Meunier, and showed us old bottles from his personal non-bubbles collection. He then sat down with us, and really delved into his personal passion and vigor for maintaining single vineyard labels. His training in Cote des Blancs really affected him, changing his perspective forever. Though it goes against the norm, it creates yet another thought-provoking process in a region of such history and varied opinions.

As we drove away, we just couldn’t get over his passion– a passion so genuine, it was granular. You could touch it. Even if we understood the overarching technique and purpose for blending, his enthusiasm made it so you wanted to throw it out the window and hop on his bandwagon. His love was infectious.

Exhausted, we took our grubby, unkempt selves to a little pizzeria in Epernay. It was exactly what we needed. A bottle of Chianti and a couple of pies at 9 euros each. Epernay, while not over the top in its gastronomic options, was solid, quaint and right on the money. It was not overcome with tourists, overpriced as Reims or cheesy. It has a very local feel, many speak no English and your food is just very unassuming and well made. Even today, we sat at a simple corner Brasserie and had croque monsieur. It was sensational for 3 euro and full service. For real. Not to mention, yesterday we stopped at a couple little shops for bread, cheese and fresh salami to feed 4 people for about 12 euro. The same food at Whole Foods? Easily $45. It’s pretty awesome.

Stay tuned for the rest of Champagne in tomorrow’s blog…

In the meantime, on our way to Alsace today!

euro scribbles: a good trip starts with champagne, naturally.

french wine, French Wine Travel, travel, Wine Travel

Day 3 and I am itching to report to all of you my travels so far and those that lie ahead. It is, without a doubt, the most comprehensive, professional tour of France’s wine regions I have been to date. And I can hardly contain my excitement! My boss, his partner, their buddy and I are loosely following France’s more famous tour: that of cycling. As we weave in an out of the route, we will sip our way through the some of the most famous regions on earth: Champagne, Alsace, Jura, Burgundy, the Northern and the Southern Rhone. A finish in Paris will conclude a memorable couple weeks of glorious consumption: that of culture, cycling, food and, of course… wine!

The first day is always a mess. Looking back, it always feel a dream occurred. Jetlag manages to steal my soul, and I am little more than a robot, stiff-kneed and zombie-like. I meet my friends in Paris, who have just come from London and we pile in a car headed to Champagne. As I suggest a GPS rental (at the cost of the car for two weeks), they decide they have sharp enough orienteering skills to go without.

I should have known then… but I was too numb from travel to insist.

It is a sad day when four grown adults fall apart like children and resort to sand throwing when lost in the hillsides of beautiful Champagne. The ironic situation of traveling alongside the Tour de France to watch my fiancee’s team Garmin Sharp Barracuda, without I dare say… a Garmin, has been nothing short of frustrating. And so I begin this travel diary of my next 2 weeks in this wondrous country with this: get a Garmin. Fortunately, I know someone who might remedy this little mess up very soon. 😉

Alas, between numerous bouts of getting lost, blaming one another, finding our way, then laughing about it (a bipolar bunch are we), there are some incredible visits with my favorite Champagne houses. They are not Veuve, nor Pommery, Mumms or Moet, they aren’t Taittinger nor even Bollinger. Per usual, I am after something smaller. Our focus is small growers (Recolant Manipulants) on this trip, or as we like to call it: farmer fizz. We speak to Terry Theise before this trip and his folks at Skurnik imports have set us up with 5 fantastic estates. Where the top 5 big guys in Champagne are literally responsible for over 2/3 of the entire production, these growers represent a humble 5,000 case production or so. Quality is everything. Terroir is the inspiration.

We arrive to our first lodgings: Castel Jeanson, owned by yet another grower who we are to visit tomorrow: Goutorbe. This hotel in Ay (about 30 minutes from downtown Reims?) seems to be known and loved by many, as a knowing smile erupts on the faces of everyone whom we tell we are here. The women who run it are so gracious and attentive. Their English is so superb, I feel silly even attempting my clumsy French, and the rooms are massive in comparison to most European hotels. I give it two thumbs up and thank Mr. Theise very much for this perfect recommendation.

Our first winery visit the very eveining we settle in town is Geoffroy (Jeff-wah), just next door to our lovely hotel. We step into the cellars, and immediately I feel at home when that musty smell of grapes skins and vinification greets me. The town even smells as such, walking by so many wineries along the road. We join another group of travelers here, and it is a perfect start. Their novice knowledge prompts our guide to run through basic Champagne production, giving us a crash course before moving on to more technical aspects. We learn that they use all gravity, not pumps, as well as all natural yeasts and no malolactic fermentation whatsoever. This becomes important when we realize through other estates how much this affects the style.

At the end, we taste through 4 wines: the Brut Traditional Expression, the 2006 Brut Empreinte, the 04 Extra Brut 1er Cru, and finally the rose of 100% Pinot Noir. The first–their entry level blend of 10% Chard, 55%Pinot Meunier and 35% Pinot Noir has a chalky, drying effect on the palate. It is quite serious for its place in life. The Empreinte is my favorite. Though a bit slutty and forward on the nose, offering voluptuous, nutty aromas, caramel and honey, it is too generous to turn away from–its firm acidity invites another sip with ease. Too much ease… The next, the 04, is most certainly the most complex. A day of jetlag, I was definitely appreciating the easier number before this one, but I knew that with a little work and thought, this was the hardest to break down. It was tightly wound with incredible depth and conversation. Finally, the pink was a pleasure, but my least favorite. Perhaps it came too late, as my heart was sold to the two preceding it. Nonetheless, its ample cherry fruit and dark berried bliss were nice treats for my tongue.

A dinner at a local restaurant in Epernay, and I am falling in my food. As I crawl to sleep not an hour later, I sleep for nine hours.


(stay tuned! more pics and stories to come. a few technical difficulties with the photos right now!)