Digby Fine English & Gurasu: Introducing the English Sparkling Wine Glass

I’m a big fan of stemware and devote much house space to carrying different glasses designed to enhance varying wine styles. Given the number of tie-ups that proliferate the wine world (I’m fresh from trying UB40’s Red Red Wine!?) I’m actually surprised that more wine critics haven’t jumped on the stemware bandwagon over the years.

Wine guru Jancis Robinson launched her new glassware a couple of months back. For those not familiar, Jancis has pared her range back to just one glass, suitable for all wine styles. The logic being that, whilst there are certain small fractions of extra pleasure that can be gleaned from style-specific glasses, the regular drinker has no space to store them all, and the proliferation of styles available means that wine begins to become a little less approachable.  All very true.

Digby Bottle

Shortly after I was interested to see negotiant Digby Fine English announced a new shaped glass, specifically designed to draw out the best qualities of English sparkling. Although English sparkling goes from strength to strength in terms of quality and renown, work continues to drive its identity (is it English sparkling, Merret, British fizz?). The clear visual identity of a bespoke glass is a logical step, but would it actually make a difference to the taste? I popped along to the launch to find out.

Digby 33

Patrick Schmitt MW began by explaining that the launch was very timely, tying together two of the hottest wine trends at the moment: English wine and stemware. He likened the Digby concept to the well-publicised comments by Maggie Henriquez, CEO and president of Krug, who led the field in suggesting that Champagne should no longer be served in flutes. Arguing instead that the wider rim of a white wine glass would better release the full aromas and sensory potential, she said that drinking Champagne from flutes was akin to “going to a concert with ear plugs”.

Proceedings were then handed over to Trevor Clough, CEO of Digby, and Joanna Maya, the designer and owner of luxury crystal glass producer Gurasu. Trevor took the lead, explaining that the new design was 2.5 years in the making, being required to hit a number of touchpoints. For him, fine wine is all about the nose, the complexity, the personality, and what he described as “the length of the conversation”.

The grapes that Digby buy in all come from producers along the chalky south downs of Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and Dorset. Having a wide pick of grapes on chalk gives their wine fresh acidity and drive, and Trevor wanted this precision to be reflected in a modern, linear design, as well as being able to quickly express the complexities of the quality fruit.

Digby 22

We were offered up their 2010 Vintage Brut in four different glasses: A flute, an ISO glass, a coupe, and the new Digby design. All of the wines had just been poured, and all at the same time (we were not told if all the flutes had been filled first, and the Digby’s last).

A couple of years back when there was a general shift away from the flute to serving Champagne in a white wine style glass, I made the transition and have never looked back. Here though, the flute was more like a test-tube, extremely thin and long. The wine never stood a chance.

Jumping forward to the coupe, there is a good reason that this was dropped as a sensible vessel for sparkling wine.  Swirling the liquid to aerate it is nigh on impossible without spilling, the nose of the wine was non-existent, and the journey of the bubbles was short and largely non-visual. Aside for one thumbs-up for the coupe on the grounds of ‘romance’, both the coupe and flute scored a monumental thumbs down from all present.

Here’s where it got a bit harder as, for me (and the general consensus), there was actually very little between the standard ISO wine tasting glass and the Digby. Both gave well on the nose and we could start appreciating the bready, toasty notes and citrus/orchard fruit. For me, the ISO filled out the palate making it feel fuller and rounder, whereas the Digby really lifted everything, making it smoother, softer and a lot more about the mousse.

With the flute and coupe almost out from the start, and feeling the odds had been somewhat stacked towards the Digby, I asked why we hadn’t had the opportunity to taste against a white wine glass, as per the Krug conversation. Apparently, this was considered but ultimately not run with. I wonder why?  In summary, there was a Digby difference but, I may err toward Jancis, in that it becomes fractions of extra pleasure.

Digby Glass

Clearly Digby and Gurasu have taken their time over the design, going through many iterations before hitting on the one that gave them the elegant, Georgian, classical style they are rightly proud of, but I was also interested to know if there had been any sort of ‘space-race’ to be first to market?

Trevor explained that, whilst they had worked on the project in something of a bubble, he was not aware of any other English producers who were doing a similar thing. He went on to say that, if any were and created a differing design, it would be welcomed so as the consumer could get the most from their wine.

Digby range

Available through the Digby website and via Harvey Nichols, a single glass is available for £32.50, or you can purchase two with a bottle of the Digby Vintage 2010 for £100. Each is handmade from lead-free crystal (the exact make up is a secret!), and is dishwasher safe.

With thanks to The Drinks Business for proving access to this masterclass.

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Georgia On My Mind

I’m always pleased when wine questions turn up in the pub quiz, a recent example being “Where can you find the worlds largest wine cellar?”.  Having visited the sprawling vast caverns of Champagne, where you sometimes need a motorised vehicle to get around, I offered it up as my answer.  I was wrong, its actually in Moldova.

Chalk Cellar

This reminded me that many people naturally think of France as the birthplace of wine when the truth is much more Eastern European.  In fact, it’s just across the Black Sea from Moldova, in Georgia. 

The oldest known evidence of wine-making there dates back 8,000 years, with scientists able to trace the organic compounds found in wine-making in various pottery shards.  This historical importance, along with over 500 unique indigenous grape varieties and unusual wine-making techniques, should make Georgian wines an easy sell.  How come then, most of us have never seen or tried them?

Traditionally focused on the domestic market and surrounding countries, the rug was firmly pulled from under Georgia’s feet when Russia imposed an import ban on their wines in 2006.  Low standards and a plodding reliability on the norm caused them to lose 90% of their exports overnight. 

Although lifted in 2013, the ban pushed them to improve quality and focus on further export opportunities, signing trade agreements with the EU and the quickly expanding Chinese wine market.  Russia once again accounts for 50% of exports but, in just 4 years, China has become their third largest market.

These sales are all good but, due to the local economies they are mostly low value, with rival brands competing on bottle prices in the £1-£1.50 bracket.  Serious future growth is dependent on higher value sales; hence them now looking to richer Western markets including both the UK and US.

Wine is not immune to the recent food trends for ‘natural’ ingredients and processes, and buzzwords including organic and biodynamic are never far from reach when talking about current production styles.

This ‘back-to-nature’ style perfectly suits Georgian wine as many producers still practice the traditional methods used for thousands of years.  Instead of fermenting/ageing wines in ultra-modern temperature cooled facilities, they bury them underground in large egg-like clay jars called ‘Qvevri’, where they utilise the naturally cool and consistent underground temperatures. 

Qvevri

Whilst this continued soaking of the grape juice on its skin is not so different to regular ‘over-ground’ red wine production around the world (the red colour comes from the grape skin, not the flesh), globally produced white wine sees little skin contact.  The Qvevri production sees them pick up a much darker hue, becoming ‘Gold’ or ‘Amber’ wines; a whole new spectrum of colour and taste.

These differences give unique selling points to Georgian wine and, with a little development to the quality classifications and labelling (both hindered by largely unpronounceable place names and grape varieties), they’ll be coming to a store near you very soon.

Two high-street staples have already taken the plunge and you can buy a Georgian white (aka gold) from M&S and a red from Waitrose.  Will you take the plunge too?

Cheers!

This article was originally published in the October 2018 edition of The Ocelot.  For more of my articles, please click here.