Head Of Wine Operations At Digby Fine English – Conor Milne

4th July 2023

Head Of Wine Operations At Digby Fine English Conor Milne

Wine isn’t just made, it’s crafted by the unwavering expertise of a Winemaker and the delicate touch of a Vineyard Manager, sometimes old traditions are passed down by generations and on other occasions, newcomers venture into the industry, introducing us to new creations, this series of Industry Interviews will help you uncover the vast world and skills of how the artists passionate about wine make the world a bubbly place.

In this feature, we speak with Conor Milne, the Head of Wine Operations at Digby Fine English. Let’s discover a little about his time in the English Wine Industry.

Tell Us About Yourself

“I’m one of the many Irish people that find themselves working in the wine production industry around the world, which is a fantastic industry to work in. I’ve been involved with English Sparkling Wine since 2020 and have just submitted my final thesis for my MSc in Viticulture & Oenology degree. As Digby’s Head of Wine Operations, I manage a small vineyard in Kent and look after all stages of the production, from grape to glass, in close collaboration with our consultant winemaker and contract partners.”

How Did You Become Involved In The Wine Industry?

“After several years working in the software industry, I packed up my life and found myself in Margaret River, Western Australia, looking for a change. Picking grapes and pruning in the vineyards sparked a new love for wine which was solidified by the many passionate people I was fortunate to work with. I set my sights on becoming a winemaker and began travelling around Australia and New Zealand, working in many vineyards and cellars. Alongside my travels, I began studying winemaking courses online through UC Davis and will hopefully be graduating with my MSc in Viticulture & Oenology from Plumpton College in short order.”

As A Winemaker, What Has Been Your Hardest Obstacle To Overcome In Producing English Sparkling Wine?

“The later stages of sparkling wine production are often overlooked when thinking about winemaking. It’s not all glitz and glamour with the harvest period; considerable labour and effort are required to put that bottle of bubbly on the shelf for you to enjoy (from riddling, disgorging and labelling). One of the biggest challenges I’ve experienced in my short time here in England is finding the storage space necessary for the vast amount of stillages during the wine’s lees ageing period. For our style of wine, we also need to factor in cork ageing time back in the stillage for up to 12 months or more. It’s important work that takes hands to move those bottles through the many necessary steps.”

How Do You Determine When Your Sparkling Wine Is Ready To Drink?

“The best way to tell is to try the wine often. Over time you can see how the wine is developing on its lees and look for that sweet spot where the wine presents itself well. Different styles of sparkling wine will have different lengths of time on the lees. Dosage trials are also key with sparkling wine as you need to find the right amount of sugar that helps bring the wine into balance. After trials, you also taste the wine to see how it’s developing with the cork over time. All of this comes together and paints the picture of when a wine is ready to release.”

What Part Of The Sparkling Wine Making Process Do You Enjoy The Most?

“Definitely the dosage trials, as it’s always so interesting to see how much of an impact the different dosage levels can have on the wine. The trials are a great way to involve the whole team outside of production and give everyone a chance to have their say on the final product. Also, the feeling of getting to taste the final results of the wine after many years of waiting is hard to beat.”

As The Vineyard Manager, What Challenges Do You Find Yourself Facing Each Year?

“As I’m sure many of my colleagues can attest to, the ever-changing conditions in the vineyard each year is always challenging. Although, that’s what keeps things interesting in this side of production. There are so many different pressures from disease, insects, and weather that can have a significant impact on the fruit. One of the toughest challenges the UK has been facing recently is a fruit fly called Spotted-Wing Drosophila that compromises healthy fruit. Difficult to predict, tough to combat and can spread like wildfire if you’re not careful.”

What Sustainable Practices Do You Employ Within The Vineyards?

“The vineyard I manage has recently been taken on by Digby. Up to this point it has been conventionally farmed which is something I’m now looking at adapting. I’ve been looking at biodynamic practices and regenerative agriculture philosophies for a while which show great results in promoting soil health and reducing our impact on the planet. Some of the initial changes I’m looking to implement will be cover cropping and possibly a no-till approach to the vineyard floor. The goals of both are to promote diversity, correct for any nutrient deficiencies in the soil by using plants and promote a healthier grapevine which may help reduce the amount of spraying required and reduce tractor passes.”

How Do You See the Future Of English Sparkling Wine?

“I’m really excited to see the wine tourism side of this industry grow. The feeling of being in a wine region as you experience in other parts of the world is something we’re lacking at the moment. It takes time to grow that experience; however, many of the wine producers in England and Wales have been laying the foundations for this. It’s only a matter of time before we become a bustling wine tourist destination with many global visitors.”

Where’s The Most Memorable Place You’ve Enjoyed A Glass of Bubbly?

“The most memorable was enjoying a glass of Sparkling Black Shiraz at Rockford in Barossa, South Australia. We had just released the latest vintage in time for Christmas, and spending the morning with the whole team around the bbq was an amazing moment. It’s a long-standing tradition in Barossa to start Christmas morning with sparkling Shiraz and my wife and I have carried that tradition with us every year since that day.”

Thank you Conor Milne, for sharing your words, knowledge and experience with us he has since moved to Okanagan in Canada to continue his wine career, with Cedar Creek Wine Estate, we at Glass of Bubbly wish you the very best for the future!

Images belong to Conor Milne. Glass of Bubbly was granted permission to use them.

Oliver Walkey

Champagne and Sparkling Wine Writer, Focused on Bringing the Exciting and Fascinating World of Bubbly to You.