In Conversation with Martin Dibben, Searcys Head of Champagne 

Searcys, is the UK’s oldest British caterer and experts in Champagne and hospitality, with a collection of Champagne bars, restaurants and event venues located in some of the UK’s most iconic and historic buildings including the Gherkin, Battersea Power Station, St Pancras, The Pump Room in Bath

In this ‘In Conversation With’ we meet Martin Dibben, Searcys Head of Champagne who shares with us his love of fine fizz, industry trends, top tips for enjoying a tipple and much more. 

With a hospitality career spanning 30 years, which started in the Royal Household in the food department and includes 9 years with Prue Leith of “Bake Off” fame, a successful London restauranteur, chairman of L’Academie du Champagne and more recently, he was appointed Consul of the South of England for the Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne – the official guild representing the Champagne region. Martin’s knowledge is extensive, and his life philosophy is refreshing – read on to find out more. 

Tell us about yourself

People often ask me about where my passion for Champagne came from. Certainly, when I was a child, Champagne was a rarity and perhaps only opened once a year to celebrate Christmas. Having graduated in hospitality from the University of Surrey, my first position was in the Royal Household, and perhaps there I developed an interest in fine wines and Champagne. From there, I went to work with Prue Leith in her event business, and this led me into a life creating magnificent events, whether it be the State Banquet for the Prime Minister at Number 10 Downing Street or a film premiere.

The next major step in my Champagne life, was when I had my restaurant, Dibbens, in Smithfield market and was invited to join the Champagne academy in 2000. This meant going to the region and learning all about this wine from the 16 Champagne Marquees. I am delighted to have this time to study this incredibly diverse and interesting wine along with the stories and history surrounding the Houses. Having built up relationships with so many houses, I became the Chairman of the Champagne Academy in 2013, and more recently The Console for the Ordre De Coteaux de Champagne in Great Britain. Now I have this amazing job of Head of Champagne for Searcys and a day will rarely go by when there is not a glass of bubbles in my hand.

Describe a typical day for you as Searcys Head of Champagne

Once I have a coffee in hand, first thing in the morning I log onto our sales system to review the sales of our bars, in particularly the sales of Champagne and English Sparkling wine. I particularly get a thrill when I see sales of Prestige Champagnes such as a Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque or a Grand Siècle N° 26 by Laurent-Perrier. Very often I will check later in the day about the person who had bought the bottle as there is often a story associated. I then head into one of our venues, we do have a head office in Holborn, but I prefer to be based in the businesses so that I can assist with wine pairing questions from the sales team or issues around wine availability. 

I work very closely with the Marketing team as so many of our ticketed events revolve around bubbles. We organise over 40 events around Champagne so with the Marketing guys I will plan the social media and interaction with our 4,000 1847 Club Members who are avid fans of the bubbles and everything we do around them. Afternoons tend to revolve around our suppliers. We work with over 30 different Champagne Houses and 60 wine producers so there is always plenty to talk about from supply to promotions and staff training. New vintages will come on the market throughout the year depending on the hemisphere so there is always something to taste. I should also add that we are seeing a growing demand for low or no alcohol drinks so I am always on the lookout for new products as we respect individuals’ choices and want to promote an inclusive atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable in our businesses.

My days are normally long as the evenings will often be taken up by one of our ticketed events. For example, last week we had forty guests at 116 Pall Mall for a Champagne Pairing Dinner celebrating the great Women of Champagne. There are so many stories to share about Veuve Cliquot becoming a widow at 27 and Louise Pommery who opened a Pommery shop in the Strand.

Searcys has been part of the London hospitality scene for over 175 years, what do you think has made the brand stand the test of time?

Over the past 175 years, the world has seen many changes, but there is one thing which has remained consistently at the heart of Searcys, and that is an uncompromising dedication to impeccable hospitality with a human touch. It is this dedication to the highest standards and the upmost quality in our products which has kept people coming back for almost two centuries.  Our founder, John Searcy was described in his time as ‘gentle, courteous and masterful’, traits which inspired undying loyalty in his household, business staff and all who crossed his path, repaying his confidence with lifelong service. This legacy lives on at Searcys today, and these traits are all still fundamental to each of us.

We’re enormously proud of every step of the Searcys story and, alongside the flawless quality we deliver, our heritage is what continues to inspire us as we create and deliver special moments for our guests. Searcys started with humble beginnings in London. Founder, John Searcy, began his journey as an apprentice pastry chef where he honed the craftsmanship that Searcys is so well known for today. 

We’ve worked incredibly hard over the years to make Searcys synonymous with the highest standards in dining, at some of the most spectacular venues, with exceptional service. Trust is earned and we know it’s at stake with every experience we create and every glass of Champagne we serve. We also don’t shy away from our heritage,and celebrate that there’s 175+ years’ worth of experience that sits behind what we do and how we do it. Our heritage is what continues to open the doors of some of the UK’s most prestigious establishments to us today. We have a wealth of knowledge, and our expertise and passion for what we do has enabled us to stand the test of time.

It’s English Wine Week, tell us about Searcys English Sparkling Wine and how this differs to Champagne

With English wine week upon us, we are very excited to release our second English Sparkling Wine. The first we did to celebrate Searcys 175th birthday, but this new wine is extremely exciting as it is a vintage from 2016. We work with the Greyfriars winery and have together created this vintage wine that expresses the best of the Surrey countryside with vibrant apple and citrus fruit. It also has a delightful richness and toasty aromas from the extended lees ageing. Most English Sparkling wines are made in the traditional method, but they do differ. Even though we have seen global warming, Champagne still receives warmer summers and colder winters. Grape picking in Champagne normally starts in September, yet in England, this will be nearer to early October and you tend to get more distinct fresh apple notes and more noticeable acidity on the palate. Champagne is a wine made from blending and since the days of Veuve Cliquot, reserve wines from previous years are blended with the new vintage. For some Champagnes this may mean wines from over the past fifty years are added which adds greater complexity. The English Sparkling Houses are two hundred years younger than many of the well-known Champagne Houses and have very limited reserve wines to add to their cuvées. There are many similarities between the two sparkling wines, but I try and encourage people to see the regions of Champagne and England as distinct wine making areas with their own unique characteristics.

What are the recent purchasing trends you are noticing for English Sparkling Wine and Champagne?

English wine is fast becoming the nation’s favourite tipples, with plantings increasing by 74% over the past five years, and Great Britain is now home to 943 vineyards and counting – with over 1,500 football pitches worth of wines. We are seeing this reflected in purchasing trends, with a 10% year on year growth in English Sparkling Wine consistently since the pandemic. We are excited to be launching a new English Sparkling Wine in conjunction with English Wine Week 2024 and are proud to have worked in collaboration with the award-winning Greyfriars Vineyard in Surrey on this product.

What in your opinion makes a good glass of Champagne?

Champagne is an expensive drink, so I believe it is worthwhile in ensuring you enjoy the complexity of this wonderful wine at its best. Try and chill your bottle between 8-10 degrees or slightly warmer if it is a vintage or Prestige. Then choose the right glass, I always recommend a tulip glass or even a wine glass so that you can swirl the glass to enjoy all the aromas. I always enjoy a glass of Champagne when with good company so choose who you share your bubbles with.

Luxury is highly subjective – what does it mean to you?

To me, luxury isn’t something to be rationed or saved for special occasions, I believe there is a well-earned place for it every day. I think about luxury as a touch of indulgence, and everyone deserves a little indulgence – who needs an excuse! It could be a glass of Champagne before you board a train at St Pancras, some bubbles to refuel after a long day shopping at Battersea Power Station, or a lunch-meeting over Champagne at 116 Pall Mall. Whatever it is, luxury is a moment enjoyed when you know you are in safe hands, where every detail has been thought of and delivered to the highest standards.

What is your life motto?

We live in an ever-turbulent world and the pace of life is getting ever faster. I believe it is important to create time for yourself and at the same time treating yourself. Create some moments to remove yourself from the madness and reflect on something beautiful. For me, that could be a night at the Opera or of course a beautiful bottle of Prestige Champagne such as Perrier-Jouët Belle Époque Blanc de Blancs, the jewel of the Belle Epoque collection.

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