Bacchus is a grape that has come to my mind as one of England’s exciting white wine grapes.
I first came across it in the early 2000’s when I started adding the occasional English wine to my repertoire. It wasn’t that hard to find by the mid 2000’s. There was at least one Bacchus wine to be found in the mostly overlooked English wine selection in my local Waitrose.
Fast forward more than a decade, and you will find quite a selection. I consider it to be entering the mainstream when I find filtering through to my local pub’s wine list.
Bacchus is the 4th most popular grape planted for still white wine in the UK (www.winegb.co.uk). It accounts for nearly 7% of the vineyard area in the UK. A region which is dominated by plantings of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with Pinot Meunier coming a low third. Unsurprisingly, this is the heavenly trio used extensively for making the English sparkling wines that are now competing against Champagnes.
From Germany to the UK
Bachus is a fascinating grape in that it has a relatively recent history and the narrowness of its spread in the world. It is a grape that was developed by Peter Morio, a German viticulturalist and Professor Husfield at Geilweilerhof Institute in 1933. It is a cross of a cross so to speak. One parent was a cross of Silvaner and Riesling and the other was Muller-Thurgau. It has been valued for its ripening ability. Although, according to Gavin Monery, winemaker for Vagabond Wines, ‘One thing we do see in Bacchus is that, even in warmer harvests, that acidity can fall off a cliff.’
However, Bacchus hardly rates a mention on the Wines of Germany website. It barely scrapes into the top 10 white grape varieties. With just over 1,600 hectares planted, it takes up less than 2% of the vineyard area and this number has been in decline since the mid 1990s. This is despite being reported as ‘fast becoming one of their main new varieties’ in my copy of ‘The Vineyards of England’ (1989). Indeed, when this book was written it appeared in nearly twice the German vineyards than it does now.
To put this into perspective though, the grape still has more acreage dedicated to it in Germany than it does here in the UK. As of 2019, there was just 15% of the German area at around 247 ha planted in the UK (www.winegb.co.uk). As per ‘The Vineyards of England’, this has grown since 1988, when there was about 34 hectares planted in the UK providing some of the lowest yields of the varieties planted with 2.9 hl/ha.
Why English vineyards?
Gavin Monery is an enthusiastic supporter. ‘It grows better in England than it does in Germany, I think, because it is a little bit cooler here. I think in Germany it is a little bit too warm, so sometimes it comes across as flat and dull. In the UK, the climate is a little more marginal, so you are generally picking it very, very early. So, it has this wonderful vibrant elderflower quality and crunchy herbaceousness. It is the most popular still wine in the country.’ So, it seems that Bacchus has found its home here for the time being but as the UK warms up too, who knows what the future brings.
He goes on to say, ‘I have never smelled a wine that smells so much of where it is grown. It is full of elderflower, cut grass, it has got that lovely hedgerow herbaceous character about it.’
Gavin Monery’s enthusiasm is echoed by Henry Connell from The Uncommon wines. ‘It is a German grape that grows very well here in England. It is early ripening, it ripens very well and it is mildew and frost resistant. And I actually think that the taste of Bacchus is quite English. It is quite Elderflowery, quite floral, quite blossomy.’
Letting Bacchus shine ….
In its homeland, Germany, when it ripens well it makes a fine contribution to Pradikatswein category wines made with varying levels of residual sugar. If they can retain their acid, they can be comparable to Riesling (www.germanwines.de) with an aromatic profile of spicy floral similar to Scheurebe. Coincidently, Scheurebe is an earlier German crossing. This time of Riesling and Bukettrebe.
Instead of leaving residual sugar in his Vagabond Bacchus wine, Monery chooses to use a different method. ‘I do some lees ageing on this to give it a little bit of creaminess to the palate as well, which helps to naturally offset the acidity because the acid can be pretty wild. Any way that you can naturally offset that by ageing on lees to give a little bit of texture, a little bit of sweetness to the palate without using (residual) sugar. But other people will use sugar. There is a lot of residual sugar in some Bacchus in the UK.’
Finding its style …
Bacchus is proving itself to be one of the most useful grapes planted in the UK. While perhaps not quite as versatile as Riesling, good Bacchus comes in many forms. From bone dry to sweet. From made to be fresh and zesty through to extensive skin contact Amber wines such as Chapel Down’s Orange Bacchus.
Additionally, sparkling versions are becoming popular as producers gain confidence with this grape. However, you might find that these sparkling wines are ‘carbonated’ rather than made in the traditional method used for making Champagne. As launched by The Uncommon, you will also find Bacchus works very well in a can.
As to whether Bacchus is as age-worthy as Riesling, I have yet to taste an aged version, however it does seem to have at least mid-term ageing potential. ‘The Vineyards of England’ states ‘if bottled dry, needs ageing to show it as its best’. A view that is also supported by Gavin Monery who mentioned that the medals Bacchus tends to win in wine shows are for wines around twelve to eighteen months of age.
Not just single varietal …
The grape lends itself to fragrant and fruity white blends as well. I noticed that Bolney Estate, which produce an excellent straight Bacchus has now made there Lychgate White Bacchus dominant (90%) rather than Reichenstenier dominant.
What has become apparent is that Bacchus really is very comfortable being grown here in English vineyards. There is plenty of experimentation to explore the potential of the grape already happening. In combination with being the only country outside Germany to produce it, also means that it will be very easy to sell this as one of England’s unique vinous contributions.
And if you need further proof to my claim as to how well Bacchus fits into the ‘ quintessential’ British lifestyle, it goes as well with Fish and Chips (whether soggy or the posh kind), as it will with prosciutto wrapped chicken.
Wines to look out for:
The Vagabond Bacchus is a dry white wine with grapes grown in Oxfordshire. It is full of flavour and its peachy finish takes on an additional saltiness. It goes without saying that this savouriness also makes it a good food wine. To read the full review, please click here.
Chapel Down Tenterden Estate Bacchus
Chapel Down has made Bacchus one of its specialities and it has several on offer. The Tenterden Estate Bacchus is produced from vines on the estate and some of these were planted in 1987. The winery and cellar door are on this estate just outside of the township of Tenterden in Kent, one of England’s southern counties.
Older vines, such as these, are noted for harvesting less fruit, but with more character and intensity. And the fruit here certainly has that concentration of classic elderflower, apple and citrus zest with a complement of savoury spice from lees contact. £19
In the past, Chapel Down have also produced ‘Orange Bacchus’. This is an amber version of English Bacchus and it has a bronze gold hue after extended skin contact in old oak barrels for 9 months. And this is a really interesting wine with loads of intense orange peel, elderflower, candied ginger, honey and honeysuckle on show. It also has a silky palate that finishes with drying grippiness.
Bolney Estate Foxhole Vineyard Bacchus
A savoury style of Bacchus that is very more-ish. A spiciness lifts the honeysuckle and elderflower floral overtones and citrus and white peach fruit. It is deliciously fresh, yet rounded in the mouth. The length of flavour offers up plenty of time to enjoy the flavours. I have tasted this with 2 years on it and it was good drinking. £17.5 (note: Bolney have now released the new vintage as an ‘Estate’ Bacchus.)
To read more about Bolney Estate wines click here.
Winbirri Vineyard Bacchus 2018
This Bacchus is grown to the North of London at Winbirri’s estate in Norfolk. The team at Winbirri have been known to refer to Bacchus as the ‘Sauvignon Blanc of England’. Having tasted this wine, I can see the similiarity in the floral, crisp green apple and peach notes. A previous vintage took out a ‘Best in Show’ in the Decanter awards, so it has started to set the benchmark for English still wine already.
It was the balance of this wine that I noted straight away. The fruit has plenty of concentration on offer and the wine finishes with a flourish that long persists. This is a style of Bacchus that will win the minds of the English wine sceptics. It is also a style that I would like to see with some age. (ABV12.5%) £16