“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: