‘Meurtre au Champagne’

It was the author – Agatha Christie – and title that got me. Translated back into English that’s ‘Murder by Champagne’ and it took a moment to work out that this must be the novel that Christie published in 1945 – ‘Sparkling Cyanide’.

‘Sparkling Cyanide’ movie poster (note the yellow iris) and ‘Meurtre au Champagne’

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Champagne – the return of the pint?

Since Pol Roger announced in late August 2016 that they were planning to revive the tradition of supplying champagne in pint bottles, the pro-Brexit British press has been loud in its approval of this decision. A ‘deeply civilised measure’ according to Jonathan Ray in the Spectator; a ‘victory for common sense’ claimed the Express. ‘God’s own bottle size’ according to Simon Berry, the chairman of Berry Bros & Rudd. Continue reading

‘Bringing happiness, one glass at a time’: Digby Fine English Sparkling Wine

‘Bringing happiness, one glass at a time’ is the unofficial mission statement of Digby Fine English – or so suggests their co-founder. The brand is named after Sir Kenelm Digby and portraits of the seventeenth-century courtier, cookbook author and pirate (hardly the life of the blessed Delia) suggest he was a man who appreciated happiness – and pleasure.

Sir Kenelm Digby, from an 18th C folio on Knights of the Realm.

Sir Kenelm Digby (courtesty of http://www.ArgentCellars.com)

And a lot of people owe him rather a lot in the way of hedonistic joie de vivre. The weight of the evidence suggests that he was the man who made English glass the strongest in Europe and in so doing kickstarted the champagne industry. Without bottles that can withstand pressure sparkling wine can never get beyond mere ‘creaming’. Full-blooded sparkling wine generates a pressure of around 6 atmospheres (think the tyres of a London bus).

So, it’s perhaps fitting that Sir Kenelm’s name (and currently modest fame) has been appropriated by a resolutely English brand of sparkling wine. At the Oxford Foodies Festival last weekend I had the pleasure of tasting Digby Sparkling wine in the company of co-founder Trevor Clough. Trevor, with the support of husband Jason Humphrey (the co-founder) and wine-maker Dermot Sugrue (ex-Nyetimber and now making his own wine), has created a wine with considerable personality and considerable sophistication.

... , Trevor Clough, Jason Humphries, and new chairman Ewen Cameron

The Digby Fine English team (courtesy of http://www.ukvine.com)

The Reserve Brut of 2009 has a French term on its label (rather to Digby’s founders’ regret) but apart from grapes (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay) and soil (the chalk arc that spreads from norther France to southern England) it owes little to France. The taste – to my palate – is dry, precise, refined and vivid. More Laurent-Perrier Extra Dry than Bollinger.

It’s also a quite ‘vinous’ taste – an annoyingly common and ill-defined word that pops up all the time in nineteenth-century descriptions of wine. In essence it means that it tastes like wine – which is not quite so common in these days of fruity ferments and over-yeasted and (arguably) over-carbonated sparkling wines. For the Digby wine guys it’s important not to be a champagne ‘me-too’. English sparkling wine must in their view (and mine too) stand on its own feet and find its own style.

The style, dressing and personality of the brand is English – with a lion on the label, houndstooth foil with a purple lining and a Fortnum & Mason’s scotch egg in the background. English-ness has always been a challenge for luxury brands. How do you steer a course between Aston Martins and warm bitter? It will be fascinating to see how Digby deal with this challenge.

Digby Fine English

The Digby Fine English range

One of the key business (if not stylistic) influences on the brand is the Napa Valley sparkling wine industry. A tour of the area convinced Jason and Trevor that a négociant model made more sense than a grower / producer model. Better to buy in grapes than grow your own. That enables each player in the value chain to focus on their own set of skills rather than trying to master them all – a lesson straight out of the business consultancy playbook.

A couple of Harpers interviews (www.harpers.co.uk) speak to the quality of the liquid – as do a clutch of awards including Gold for the Reserve Brut 2009 at the Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships 2014 – and the recent deal with the Leander Club to become the official supplier of pink fizz testifies to the marketing nous of the Digby pair and their advisers.

Digby Leander Pink NV

Out with the lion, in with the Leander Club hippo

Champagne was always a recommended drink on the nineteenth-century for athletes and jockeys (and horses – though that’s another story) so I look forward to a generation of Olympic oarsmen fuelled by fizz. And, I hope, a successful future for Digby (www.digby-fine-english.com).

Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut – a history of innovation

If you like your champagne dry then you’ll know of Laurent-Perrier’s Ultra Brut. You may not have had the chance to taste it, since it’s produced only in very great years. With no dosage at all, the Ultra Brut is, as the company puts it, a wine ‘without make-up’, a wine in its natural form. Very pale and bright with citrus, white fruit and honeysuckle on the nose it’s a great wine with seafood and oysters but also with foie gras.

ultra brut seashore

Laurent-Perrier’s Ultra Brut

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Sauternes gets a sparkle

The family that owns Smith Haut Lafitte last week launched a light Sauternes to be mixed with Perrier water and drunk as an aperitif. Traditional Sauternes lovers are dubious – and probably not reassured by the family’s statement that ‘those who don’t disrupt existing models will have difficulty surviving.’

However, it’s far from the first wine cocktail and very far from the first sparkling Sauternes.

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Champagne on tap – Pommery style

In the last couple of days there’s  been a fuss in the British press about ‘prosecco on tap’. There are plenty of bars up and down the land where this has been on offer for the last year or so. Now the Consorzio de Conegliano Valdobbiadene have threatened to take the venues to court. EU rules say prosecco (like champagne) can only be sold from the bottle. The Italians claim that drinking it from a tap causes confusion and damages their sales. But there’s a rather fine Pommery precedent from the 1920s… Continue reading

Champagne versus sparkling wine: the Bothy Vineyard challenge

The Bothy Vineyard (www.bothy-vineyard.co.uk) is Oxford’s nearest vineyard. Run with imagination and dedication by Richard and Sian Liwicki, it produces award-winning white, rosé and red wines. New from Bothy this year is their sparkling brut rosé, Halcyon Days. But this piece is not a plug for Bothy but an opportunity to write about a remarkable tasting last month.

Bothy vineyard

The Bothy Vineyard

Richard is, to put it politely, a bit of a sceptic about champagne. He reckons that there are sparkling wines in the market which are not only preferred by tasters but considerably better value than the real stuff. So, he challenged a group of the Bothy’s friends (we all put in a few days’ work a year in the vineyard in return for a bottle or two and some of Sian’s top-notch cooking) to produce their best bottle of champagne or sparkling wine for a taste-off.

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Back to the terroir – Lambrusco re-booted

I went a week or so ago to the inaugural Oxford Wine Festival (www.Oxfordwinefestival.org).

Among a range of interesting stands (and an excellent bar with some fascinating wines run by 1855 – www.1855oxford.com) I came across the range of Lambrusco wines imported by Kilgariff & Kahan and could not resist the opportunity write about red fizz for once.

Lambrusco is one of those wines that, rather like Beaujolais Nouveau, lost itself to easy drinking marketing in the 1970s and 1980s and has been painfully trying to regain lost ground ever since. Continue reading

Sovetskoye Shampanskoye – Stalin’s ‘plebeian luxury’

On 28 July 1936, Stalin signed Resolution no 1366 setting up three wine trusts that were tasked with making Soviet champagne. This was something of a challenge to Soviet vine-growers since until 1935 champagne or sparkling wine was seen as a ‘bourgeois luxury’ and they had been encouraged to root up the noble grapes planted in the nineteenth and early twentieth century in regions such as Abrau-Durso (on the Black Sea shores of the Crimea). These noble grapes had been the basis of a small production of Russian sparkling wine by the traditional method (what we now know as méthode champenoise) but official Soviet policy was to replace them with more prolific varieties.

Stalin (perhaps under the impulse given by Anastas Mikoyan, the People’s Commissar for External and Internal Trade), decided that champagne was ‘an important sign of material well-being, of the good life’. The pressure was on to show that under Communism goods such as champagne and caviar that were once the preserve of the wealthy were now available to Soviet workers.


Mikoyan, Stalin and Ordzhonikidze – the ‘Caucasus trio’ – with acknowledgments to Wikipedia

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The Kate Moss coupe: Caring’s champagne coup

London restaurateur Richard Caring (The Ivy, Annabel’s, Le Caprice, Soho House) has been described by restaurant critic A.A. Gill as aiming for ‘the restaurant equivalent of LVMH’. Fittingly then, it’s LVMH’s Dom Perignon champagne brand that – along with Caring and 34, another of his London restaurants – will benefit from a latest masterstroke of marketing.

Moss glass

The Moss glass (with ‘Kate’ signature on the bottom). Courtesy of 34 Restaurant

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