Over the last couple of years English Sparkling Wine has developed an ever-increasing profile, with both established and new producers winning not only national, but international awards – and many of them! But lets not forget that England is capable of producing rather excellent still wines too. Sure, for many years England was languishing with insipid whites and watery reds – but those days are over! A revolution in still English wine is taking place, and whilst in good years the internationally known Burgundy varieties can produce outstanding results (see Chapel Down’s Kit's Coty Chardonnay 2013 or Gusbourne’s Pinot Noir Twenty Fourteen), there is one grape in particular that is starting to deliver fantastic still wines across the country year in, year out. That grape is Bacchus.
So what is Bacchus?
The name Bacchus dates back to the Romans, in fact it was the name given to the God of Wine, known as Dionysus by the Ancient Greeks. The god was the figurehead of the cult of Dionysus that, amongst other beliefs, promoted unrestrained consumption of wine and forms of drunken debauchery. However it is the Roman term of Bacchus that has resonated throughout history, and formed the perfect name for a grape that has a rather interesting heritage.
Bacchus is a cross between Silvaner X Riesling and Müller-Thurgau. The grape was created in the 30’s in the German region of Pfalz, though plantings have decreased by almost 75% in the last 15 years or so. The reason for this? In German climates the vines tend to produce grapes with a high must weights (higher sugar levels) – the result is flabby wines lacking structure and balance. However English winemakers increasingly have adopted the grape, as our own climate tends to result in lower yields than Germany and, crucially, wines with higher acidity.
The Bacchus grape is second to only Chardonnay as the most planted white grape in UK, though you have to consider that a huge portion of Chardonnay vines planted across the country are used for Sparkling wine production. As of August last year there were 128.52 hectares of land planted with Bacchus in England, accounting for just over 8% of total land under vine (source: English Wine Producers). The grape is a hardy variety, and thrives in vineyards in pretty much every wine-making region in England.
Whilst typically described as a wine with similar character to Sauvignon Blanc, at Great British Wine we prefer to embrace the grape's own subtle floral, citrus and grassy characters. Other qualities to look for in Bacchus include tropical fruit flavours and, in some of the best wines; a wonderful and pronounced mineral character. These rich and diverse qualities make Bacchus a perfect food pairing wine - working particularly well with asian dishes, seafood as well as fish and chips. We put this to test during our extensive tasting, sampling the wines alongside small bites including lightly spiced asian canapés and salted crispy fish pieces - these pairings were sublime!
We asked Josh Donaghay-Spire of Chapel Down, producer of no less than four Bacchus wines, exactly what is it like working with the grape. He had the following to say:
"Working with Bacchus is great fun. Exploring the wide range of aromas and flavours it can offer from different sites and soils with various climates is a fascinating process.
Taking this into the winery and trialling techniques including crushing vs whole bunch pressing, varying levels of solids, wild ferments, skin contact, oak usage, nutrient levels and different yeast strains just makes working with it even more interesting.
We’re at what feels like the beginning of learning what we can achieve in the UK with this variety, which is a great opportunity for any winemaker and I personally feel very lucky to be a part of it." - Josh Donaghay-Spire, Winemaker, Chapel Down
For Great British Wine’s first ever-official English Wine panel tasting, we decided to keep it small and intimate. As such, the panel consisted of myself, GBW regulars Robbie Priddle and Andrij Jurkiw as well as close friends Ainé, Jack, and finally my partner Qian. The idea was to get a broader panel reaction to a rather spectacular range of English Wines. Indeed, whilst the panel was host to a couple of Bacchus newcomers, it was our own Robbie Priddle, a bit of a sceptic to the grape variety, whom I was most curious to explore the grape with. I was rather confident that, before the evening was over, I would have introduced him to several Bacchus’ that would put a smile on his face.
THE 2015 VINTAGES
THE BOLNEY ESTATE – FOXHOLE BACCHUS 2015
REGION: West Sussex RRP: £16.99
About the Winemaker: The Bolney Estate, established in 1972 is a family business based in West Sussex. The Foxhole Bacchus is one of their flagship still wines.
Lighter, gentler on the nose than some, this wine still has the fresh citrus aromatics with a more orchard fruit led character.
On the palate, the acidity is prominent up front with vivid grapefruit and lemon.
The finish is gentle, with a slightly greener citrus character and slight mineral hints, the panel commented that the finish was a little linear and short.
ALBOURNE ESTATE – BACCHUS 2015
REGION: West Sussex RRP: £13.95
About the Winemaker: A deliberately small, family owned estate of 26 acres, headed by Alison Nightingale and also based in West Sussex.
The aromas on this wine were much more floral focussed; loads of elderlower, with cut grass, hedgerow, hints of white pepper, pine needle and an underlying salinity.
This wine’s diversity continued on the palate, with the Bacchus’ signature acidity and citrus flavours taking hold initially, before a layered and textured journey unfolds. There’s a real youthful green character to this wine; grassy, unripe papaya and lime. Salty salinity, mineral finish – nuanced, textured, wonderful!
It’s less approachable then some of the other wines we tried, but it’s a serious wine lovers wine for sure; distinctive and hugely interesting.
LYME BAY – BACCHUS BLOCK 2015
REGION: Devon RRP: £TBC
About the Winemaker: A pioneer in fruit wines, Lyme Bay in Axminster, Devon entered the English Wine arena several years ago, under the healm of winemaker Liam Idzikowski.
One of the standout wines thanks to its incredible potency – we sum it up as Bacchus x 10!
On the nose, intense lime zest and lime leaf, pink grapefruit, whilst the floral qualities take a back seat.
To taste, this huge assault for the senses; bold, potent lime and grapefruit, zest lemon with tart passion fruit tropics. Robbie compared it to a powerful new world style white, and was amazed it had come from English soils.
This intense, punchy style makes the wine a great food pairing wine.
Where to Buy: Davy's Wine Merchants
CHAPEL DOWN – BACCHUS 2015
REGION: Kent RRP: £11.99
About the Winemaker: Chapel Down is the largest producer of English Wine, and winemaker Josh producer four different Bacchus' including a Single Estate and Orange variety.
The cheapest wine in our lineup at £11.99, and the most widely available Bacchus on the market at this point.
On the nose, all the Bacchus aromatics you expect; lime zest, grapefruit and tropical fruit with hints of fresh grass.
Following on from the Lyme Bay, this felt a little more restrained – however the acidity and bold citrus flavours remained punchy up front. There’s quite a rich tropical fruit mid taste, though overall the finish a little short.
This is Chapel Down’s entry Bacchus and a rather good starting point for those new to the varietal, however their Bacchus Reserve (£13.99) and Tenterden Bacchus (£15.99) offer more complexity and texture.
WINBIRRI – BACCHUS 2015
REGION: Norfolk RRP: £12.99
About the Winemaker: Founded in 2007 by Stephen Dyer, Winbirri is now run by son Lee Dyer. Over 25 acres of land under vine and a string of awards to their name.
Along with the Chapel Down, this was one of the more accessibly priced Bacchus we tried. On the nose, the Winbirri has a fresh clean profile of lemon citrus and elderflower.
To taste, the palate was a direct hit of lemon, tangy grapefruit with green grassy notes and that distinctive elderflower character.
Of all the wines we tried, this was the most likened to a Sauvignon Blanc, making the wine a likely crowd pleaser – though generally it was noted to be a little linear overall.
Where to Buy: Lea & Sandman
SIXTEEN RIDGES – BACCHUS 2015
REGION: Worcestershire/Herefordshire RRP: £13.49
About the Winemaker: Sixteen Ridges has vineyards in Worcestershire & Herefordshire and is headed by winemaker Simon Day.
A really interesting Bacchus that has quite a distinctive herbaceous character that helps it to stand out.
The nose is very green, with lime, gooseberry, grass and hedgerow aromas.
Like all of the 2015’s tasted, the Sixteen Ridges has a wonderful youthful freshness with zippy citrus acidity, though is a little softer than some of the others.
Cut grass and subtle tropical notes on the mid taste with pronounced fresh basil leaf flavours, this would be a great food pairing wine.
Where to Buy: Once Upon a Tree
THE 2014 & 2013 VINTAGES
CAMEL VALLEY – DARNIBOLE BACCHUS 2014
REGION: Cornwall RRP: £14.95
About the Winemaker: Bob Lindo has been producing wines in Cornwall since 1989. Now joined by his son Sam, Camel Valley is a multi award winning still and sparkling producer.
This is Camel Valley’s single vineyard estate grown Bacchus – and what a delightful wine it is!
The nose on this wine is a little less direct, but full of character and intrigue. The zesty citrus character is still there, but integrated with sweet pear, melon and floral notes.
The Darnibole continues to please with its delightfully layered palate. Initially bold acidity with lemon, leading to a softness that allows lots of subtle nuances to come out; ripe orchard fruit flavours of pear and green apple.
This wine has a wonderful clean finish of striking grapefruit, cool salty salinity and hints of white pepper and fresh herbs. A truly stunning wine and one of the clear favourites of the lineup.
Where to Buy: Camel Valley
DENBIES – VINEYARD SELECT BACCHUS 2013
REGION: Surrey RRP: £14.95
About the Winemaker: Denbies Estate is based in Dorking, Surrey and has a huge 265 acres of land under vine. The wines are made on site by Litmus Wines.
This wine from Denbies’ flagship Vineyard Select series was unique in our tasting thanks to its age and an extended lees contact.
The result of this extra development is a wine that still carries all of those floral citrus Bacchus qualities, with a slightly dusty nuanced character and sweet ripe fruit.
Still fresh with zippy acidity up front, a bright lemon character leads the way to riper sweet melon and floral palate. There’s certainly more texture in this wine, which has a wonderful persistent mouth hugging texture.
Where to Buy: Denbies Estate (2015 Vintage)
KINGSCOTE – THE BACCHUS 2013
REGION: Sussex RRP: £15.99
About the Winemaker: Based just outside East Grinstead with 15 acres of vines covering sparkling and still varieties. Winemaking headed by the familiar face of Owen Elias.
Sweet orchard fruit aromas, with more distant notes of lime and grapefruit, with hints of honeyed melon in the background too.
On the palate, the acidity is a little lacking, and the orchard fruit flavours really take centre stage – perhaps with even some peachy hints. The finish was a little perplexing – some lingering grapefruit tang but an underlying, almost cloying sweet sensation.
The sweetness we detected was perhaps exaggerated by the super-clean and youthful wines tried before it. This wine was a late harvest, made with the intention of creating a weightier Bacchus.
Perhaps a wine enjoyed better in youth, it did however fare better when tried in isolation.
Where to Buy: Kingscote Estate
THE INNOVATIVE BACCHUS
FURLEIGH ESTATE – BACCHUS FUMÉ 2014
Region: Dorset RRP: £12.95
About the Winemaker: An 85 acre vineyard set in beautiful Dorset, producing a range of both still and sparkling wines.
The first of our Bacchus innovators, made with juice from grapes with the strongest varietal character before ageing in American oak for 7 months.
The effect of the oak was immediately identified, with a slight golden colour as well as wonderfully distinctive toasted spice in addition to the varietal characteristics.
On first sip, the spice and vanilla character appeared to slightly dominate the palate, but this could be the stark contrast in style compared to the wines that preceded. With further sips, the wine really opened up, revealing a wonderful smooth textured wine with gentle citrus oil and spice textures.
Where to Buy: Furleigh Estate
LITMUS – ORANGE BACCHUS 2015
Region: Surrey RRP: £20.00
About the Winemaker: Litmus Wines is run by John Worontschak, Mike Florence and Matthieu Elzinga, and based Denbies in Surrey. They focus on premium still English wines of distinction.
The newly released Orange Bacchus is made from Bacchus grapes that have been fermented and soaked with skin contact, and then aged in two to five year old French oak for texture and complexity.
This wine really split the opinion, effectively a ‘marmite’ wine with unusual textures and qualities. All agreed that the nose was stunning; nettle and grassy notes, almost herbaceous with spice, nut and banana peel aromas.
The palate was not so widely appealing, as the Orange has a distinctive drying tannin texture with rather dominating bitter almond and dried nettle flavour profile. A curious layer of spice adds intrigue.
Certainly not a wine for everyone, but a fascinatingly different and experimental approach to Bacchus, expected to integrate with a bit more bottle age.
HATTINGLEY VALLEY – ENTICE DESSERT WINE 2014
Region: Hampshire RRP: £15.95
About the Winemaker: Hattingley Valley is an English Sparkling producer based in East Hampshire, Entice is an experimental wine from winemaker Jacob Leadley.
Truly unique, late harvest Bacchus, frozen to -10oC after harvest before a slow press of 36 hours.
The resulting wine is remarkable, golden in colour with rich ripe aromas of sweet apricot, candied fruit and elderflower. Hints of spice; cinnamon, cardamom and dried tangerine peel continue to draw you in.
The Entice is similarly evocative on the palate, opening with unctuous ripe apricot before vibrant punchy acidity jumps out and grabs you with all the potency and snappiness of a zingy pineapple.
A truly wonderful wine to end the tasting on, hinting at further possibilities for this evidently versatile grape.
THE FINAL VERDICT
Overall, the 12 wines we covered during the evening were consistently interesting and diverse. Whilst we hadn’t necessarily intended to critique or rank the wines, there were a few that emerged as the clear favourites, or perhaps the most distinctive examples of English Bacchus? The Camel Valley Darnibole was, almost unanimously, the favourite on the night – offering classic varietal style combined with unrivalled texture, intrigue and elegance. The Albourne and Lyme Bay wines also ranked highly, again thanks to their structure and potency respectively.
We also felt it necessary to recognise two wines that added further complexity and character to the formula. The first of these being the rather wonderful Hattingley Valley Entice, which is unfortunately rarer than gold dust now. Winemaker Jacob Leadley has hinted at the possibility of a new vintage made from the 2016 harvest - no promises, but watch this space! And finally we have Denbies wonderful Vineyard Select 2013, which utilised extended lees contact and bottle ageing to induce weight and texture. The new 2015 vintage of the Denbies was released just after our tasting, which looks to build upon the formula and benefits from an evidently excellent vintage.