Spotlight Tasting: Bacchus

It’s been a long time coming, eight years in fact since I did my very first Bacchus Spotlight, and in those eight years how English Wine and the Bacchus category has grown! My very first English still wine was Chapel Down Bacchus and I loved its aromatic and zingy fusion. With the country’s love of crisp wines like the often compared Sauvignon Blanc, and with the Bacchus grape’s resilience in marginal climates, it’s no surprise that the grape has grown in favour of the hearts of both drinkers and winemakers. But that doesn’t mean it’s without its detractors. During my early days of English Wine exploration, many examples of English Bacchus were pretty linear and, dare I say it, samey. A glass full of lime, elderflower and unripe tropical fruits was decently refreshing but perhaps a little one-dimensional for real wine lovers. But winemakers have branched out with different techniques and expressions, and found new ways of bringing out the best in the variety.

With all this progress, I gathered what I believe to be the biggest line-up of still Bacchus ever tasted side-by-side. I then assembled a panel of very capable and experienced English wine tasters, including myself and GBW Editor Stephen Groves, wine advisor Tim KIllen @timsfoodandwinetravels, and good friends and English wine followers Alex Ram and George Biswas, who is brand ambassador and tour/tasting host for Albury Vineyard. I must say that both myself and the rest of the panel were surprised at just how diverse the wines were. Sure, there were a number of middling, perhaps old-fashioned examples, but there was a real expanse of expression, ranging from green and lean, to floral and fragrant, to opulent and tropical, and then the more nuanced oaked and skin contact examples. The skin contact wines in particular felt like a very different style, and so will be branched off into a separate article that I’m calling ‘The Bacchus Mavericks’ – more to come on that soon.

All of the wines on the night were tasted completely blind to ensure no historic or local favouritism. But I must say the top five are particularly interesting, with the wines sitting at fifth to third place all being the cleaner, unoaked style but really elevating themselves above being likened to a Sauvignon Blanc. In my opinion, that comparison sells these wines short. While you get the grassy, gooseberry and lime character that thematically binds Sauvignon Blanc and Bacchus together, Bacchus also brings about intense tropical fruit, delicate florals and then a tingling acidity that proves to be brilliantly moreish.

And then onto the top two wines – probably two of the most stylistically similar in the whole line-up, but still very much wines unto themselves, from different winemakers and regions: I’ve long been a fan of Chapel Down Kit’s Coty Bacchus. The first three vintages of that wine rank up there with some of the very best English still wines I’ve ever tasted, be they Bacchus or any other variety. Personally, I felt the 2019 and 2020 vintages did not reach the electric heights of 2016-2018, but the latest 2021 feels a real return to form with its exuberant concentration, layers of smoke and flint, and delightful tropical fruit and green citrus.

The overall top-ranking wine, with a similar approach to the Kit’s Bacchus, was Flint Bacchus Fumé. What really elevated this wine to the top step of the podium was Flint’s understanding of Bacchus typicity. It was leaner, and greener than the Kit’s wine, but also brought about curious smoky layers and that grilled lime and minty oak character that always makes Flint wines stand out. It has to be said the scores between these two wines were incredibly close, with two of us favouring the Flint, one the Kit’s, and another two scoring both wines equally. Both were clearly the most complex and complete wines of the tasting and quite a step above the other oak barrel-influenced Bacchus we tried.

I asked Flint’s founder and winemaker, Ben Witchell, what he thought was the secret to success in his top-rated Bacchus Fumé. He stated “the skin contact gives texture and the oak softens the tannins that are naturally quite high in Bacchus. I’ve also found since using oak for Bacchus that its porosity helps the wine breathe and it seems to accelerate it on its ageing journey. We’ve found at Flint that Bacchus takes really well to neutral oak. I would be wary of using new oak but neutral oak (3 fills +) opens it up.”

In an interesting move, Flint plan to expand upon the success of the Bacchus Fumé. Ben explained that “we’ve decided to consolidate our two Bacchus wines and just make one, simply called Fumé. This will be our attempt to make what we hope is the best expression of Bacchus and will be predominantly based on juice fermented and aged in neutral oak but with a splash of stainless steel fermented wine to keep that freshness.” It’s a brilliant approach and actively demonstrates Ben’s commitment to producing a superb multi-dimensional Bacchus that stands out from the crowd, something that the 2022 vintage clearly does very well.

Getting on to the fundamentals of the article specifically, I decided that the format would consist of full, detailed tasting notes and insights into the wines that formed our top-scored of all Bacchus tried – over 40 in fact. I have then followed up with 14 further examples, listed in alphabetical order by producer rather than rank, that demonstrated both the typicity and diversity of the grape. As a final thought on this tasting, I really think that all these wines together demonstrate that Bacchus is anything but a one-note Sauvignon Blanc clone. In the right hands, Bacchus can be textural, diverse and, most importantly, absolutely delicious. This tasting has re-ignited my love for the grape and justified why it is still the fourth most grown grape in England, after the increasingly popular trio of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

Our Ten Highest Rated Bacchus

1 – Flint Bacchus Fumé 2022

Region: Norfolk
Winemaker: Ben Witchell

The fruit for Flint’s Fumé came from both their own vineyard, and partner vineyard in Hedenham. The wine was fermented partly with indigenous yeasts and the other half was co-inoculated with complimentary ‘wild’ and Saccharomyces strains. It was fermented and aged in 3rd and 4th fill oak barrels for 6 months with weekly bâtonnage on 50% of the wine, with no sugar additions and minimal effective SO2.

The resulting wine is striking and immediately appealing in the glass, with a nose full of smoky intrigue and grilled lime as well as a signature minty vanilla note that I associate with Flint’s winemaking.

The palate on the Flint is beautifully composed, with concentrated juicy fruit of peach, nectarine and pear, but also this driving lemon and lime linearity that brings the freshness that edged it to the top in our ranking. Then you have all the smoky, textural elements that the Flint promised on the nose, interweaved into the diverse, expressive and expansive palate that never fails to impress and leaves a lingering impression with hints of nut and spice.

2 – Chapel Down Kit’s Coty Bacchus 2021

Region: Kent
Winemaker: Josh Donaghay-Spire

If there’s one producer that has defined Bacchus and introduced the grape to more wine drinkers than anyone else, it’s Chapel Down. Their seminal entry-level Bacchus is England’s highest-production wine and still showed very well in this tasting. On the other end of the spectrum is Kit’s Coty Bacchus, a smaller-scale Bacchus that brings barrel ageing and wild yeasts into the mix.

The nose was an immediate draw, with more tangerine and satsuma citrus than the usual Bacchus lemon and lime. We also picked up notes of Earl Grey tea, grapefruit, peach skin and mint.

To taste, the Kit’s continued to impress with its broad and diverse flavour profile of grilled lime, tangerine, blood orange and beautiful herbaceous complexity. Hints of nettle and a delicate layer of spiced oak lingering in the background sealed the deal.

3 – Camel Valley Bacchus 2022

Region: Cornwall
Winemaker: Sam Lindo

One of the longest-established English wine producers, making wine since 1989, Bob Lindo and son Sam have been purveyors of great Bacchus for as long as I have followed English Wine. Interestingly, it was their Bacchus Dry 2022 that outshone the more premium Darnibole Bacchus (which still showed really well).

What made this particular wine stand out and appeal to us all was its nuanced, smoky nose that sat somewhere in between flint, bergamot, Thai basil and rosemary, whilst bringing the classic character of citrus and tropical fruit to the party.

The palate continued in the vein of the nose, offering both great fruit concentration and juiciness, zesty lemon and lime, but also the more considered flavours of yuzu, peach and complex herby complexity. This is as good as classic Bacchus gets, and a must-try for those that love the grape.

4 – Winbirri Bacchus 2022

Region: Norfolk
Winemaker: Lee Dyer

No stranger to the limelight, Winbirri’s Bacchus is always there – it’s always expressive and it’s always great. Winemaker Lee Dryer is famous for taking the Best Value White Single-Varietal Platinum Trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards 2017.

The nose is as classic as it gets, with hedgerow, nettle, grass and all of the expected citrus vibrancy, but it was the hints of green pepper and blackcurrant that stood out and drew a comparison to some of the very best examples of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

The palate bursts with an intense hit of citrus fruit salad and bright passion fruit with yellow grapefruit. Then, the lush ripeness of the 2022 vintage shines through with peach and nectarine and even a hint of guava. Juicy, satisfying and incredibly expressive, this vintage feels as good as Winbirri has ever been.

5 – Woodchester Vallley Bacchus 2022

Region: Gloucestershire
Winemaker: Jeremy Mount

One of two wines from Gloucestershire’s Woodchester Valley featured in our tasting, it was interesting that their entry-level Bacchus that really caught our attention on this occasion.

What made the Woodchester stand out was its fragrant but refined nose, combining aromas of nettle, citrus zest and light stone fruit with more distinctive notes of white pepper and flinty minerality.

The palate was whistle-clean, preserving the brilliantly bright expression and embracing the finely textured and incredibly appealing layers of minerality and lemon sherbet brilliance. This was really considered overall, and more expressive right now than Woodchester’s Orpheus Bacchus.

6 – Penn Croft Bacchus 2022

Region: East Sussex / Hampshire
Winemaker: Ben Smith, Itasca

A noticeable step up in complexity (along with the technically very similar Missing Gate Bacchus below), this is Itasca Winery’s middle-tier Bacchus, and was the highest ranked out of seven wines made at the same winery in the line-up. It was made with 25% of the juice fermented and matured in oak.

The nose on this was fantastic, with ripe nectarine, peach and pear, in addition to the usual limey citrus burst and unusually, a hint of butterscotch.

The palate on this wine was beautiful, bringing all of that promised ripe nectarine and peach, as well as tangy passion fruit and an abundance of citrus and grassy typicity. What stood out was the fine minerality and grassy texture that ran through to the incredibly long finish.

7 – Missing Gate Bacchus 2021

Region: Essex
Winemaker: Ben Smith, Itasca

Interestingly, this tied with the Penn Croft Bacchus and comes from one of Essex’s brightest new names, with winemaking being handled by Itasca’s Ben Smith. It was also made with 25% barrel fermentation, which really enhanced the texture of the wine.

On the nose, the warmth of Essex fruit manifested in peach and melon hints, which integrated nicely with grapefruit and a few nods to the smoky, petrol-tinted highs of Riesling.

The palate was beautifully integrated, with a ripeness of ripe pear, stone fruit and fleshy peach, cut through with lively zesty acidity. This Bacchus has body, and the subtle hints of creamy oak and smoke running through it brought excellent structure.

8 – Tuffon Hall Bacchus 2022

Region: Essex
Winemaker: Steve Gillham

Serial winner at the Independent English Wine Awards, Tuffon Hall’s great wine is a textbook example of classic Bacchus.

The nose has citrus and floral typicity, with lime grapefruit and lovely smoky and mineral hints.

The palate is beautifully composed, with all of the promised zesty citrus fruit, supported by a cushion of juicy apple with hints of orange and passion fruit. Overall, it’s a vibrant and clean expression, but with a really expansive and appealing profile.

9 – Albourne Estate Bacchus 2022

Region: Sussex
Winemaker: Alison Nightingale

Albourne’s Bacchus was a personal favourite during my early years of English Wine exploration, so it’s great to see it still up there amongst the best.

This wine won over the tasters with its delightful nose of nectarine skin, lime and tropical, floral aromas.

The palate is crunchy and vibrant, with lots of lime zest and grapefruit intensity, leading to potent tropical fruit and hints of Turkish delight. The finish is firm and lingering with minerals and gooseberry.

10 – Nutbourne Estate Bacchus 2022

Region: Sussex
Winemaker: Owen Elias

While Nutbourne has been around for a long time (their vineyards date back to 1991), they are a name that perhaps doesn’t get talked about as much as they should. Essentially neighbours of Nyetimber’s original site, Nutbourne is a picturesque traditional English vineyard that is steeped in experience with the hybrid grapes and Germanic varieties. Balfour’s Owen Elias is their consultant winemaker.

The nose is very clean and classic, perhaps a tad understated compared to some of the other high-rated Bacchus, but it does appeal with a fusion of pear, lime and floral notes, with suggestions of peach and orange peel.

It may be subtle on the nose, but it certainly isn’t on the palate! The flavours explode with intense lemon, lime and pink grapefruit, while a suggestion of sweetness and high fruit ripeness providing body and texture that the acidity bounces off nicely.

The Next Best 14 (In Alphabetical Order)

Balfour Liberty’s Bacchus 2022

Region: Kent
Winemaker: Fergus Elias

I thought this showed very well, and we really enjoyed the slightly spicy ginger, nettle and limey nose. The broader palate with tangerine and gooseberry, as well as the ginger spice, made it stand out.

Camel Valley Darnibole Bacchus 2022

Region: Cornwall
Winemaker: Sam Lindo

This has grass and nettle on the nose, with intense limey and tropical fruit. With nice fine texture and great acidity, this has a Sauvignon Blanc kind of vibe, but also brings textures of blood orange, pineapple and gooseberry – fragrant and long.

Castlewood Devon Minnow Bacchus 2021

Region: Devon
Winemaker: Rob Corbett

Perhaps the most unusual and striking wine in the core line-up, this has a unique fusion of nectarine, mango, black tea and dried lime on the nose. The palate is equally diverse and textured, with impressive stone fruit broadness as well as a smoky Lapsang Souchong tea note.

Chapel Down Bacchus 2022

Region: Kent
Winemaker: Josh Donaghay-Spire

Chapel Down produce around 200,000 bottles of this wine a year, but it remains a brilliantly accessible introduction to English Bacchus. It has fruit pastilles and blackcurrant leaf on the nose, with bags of lime and gooseberry. The palate is zingy but rounded, and is a great introduction to one of England’s signature styles.

Chapel Down Tenterden Bacchus 2021

Region: Kent
Winemaker: Josh Donaghay-Spire

Perhaps a little understated compared to the other Chapel Down examples, the Tenterden Bacchus has a subtlety of green orchard fruit, with lively acidity and a slightly pithy citrus finish.

Denbies Bacchus 2022

Region: Surrey
Winemaker: Andy Kershaw

Quite distinctive in style, the Denbies Bacchus is a little tightly wound, with waxy lemon and a pithy citrus texture. When it warms a little there’s a nice fusion of nectarine and gooseberry.

Furleigh Estate Bacchus Dry 2022

Region: Devon
Winemaker: Ian Edwards

There’s a fragrant floral, pear and overall attractive nose on this wine. The palate is initially zesty and crunchy, but there’s a suggestion of higher residual sugar than most which brings some weight and crowd-pleasing appeal to this wine.

New Hall Bacchus 2022

Region: Essex
Winemaker: Steve Gillham

This very classy and classic Bacchus has all the green citrus, nettle and grassiness you expect from the grape. The palate is dominated by the limey, grassy freshness, but some subtle smokiness and a slight grippy texture give it an extra dimension.

Penn Croft Village Bacchus 2022

Region: East Sussex & Hampshire
Winemaker: Ben Smith

With elderflower aromatics dialed up, this is old-school mainstream Bacchus. It’s very appealing, easy-drinking and with nice expressive ripe fruit to balance the acidity.

Terlingham Bacchus 2022

Region: Kent

This has a fragrant and expressive nose, with elderflower and jasmine notes as well as clean fruit. Stylistically quite commercial, this combined a ripe, fruit-forward palate with pronounced floral notes.

Thorrington Mill Bacchus 2021

Region: Essex
Winemaker: Ben Smith

This has a fragrant and expressive nose, with elderflower and jasmine notes as well as clean fruit. Stylistically quite commercial, this combined a ripe, fruit-forward palate with pronounced floral notes.

Woodchester Valley Orpheus Bacchus 2022

Region: Gloucestershire
Winemaker: Jeremy Mount

This has an expressive elderflower, lime, jasmine and grapefruit nose with flinty hints and a light smokiness. The palate, whilst clean and crunchy with gooseberry and blackcurrant leaf notes, was a tad austere and not as expressive as the brilliant Woodchester Bacchus.

Wraxall Bacchus Unreserved 2022

Region: Somerset
Winemaker: Ben Smith

A barrel-fermented Bacchus with extended lees-ageing, this Bacchus showed well but perhaps is not as textural as one would have expected. Nevertheless, the flavour profile of peach, orange and pink grapefruit, as well as a hint of butterscotch, was very appealing.

Yotes Court Bacchus 2022

Region: Kent
Winemaker: Nick Lane

This has a really fragrant and pretty nose of lime and exotic tropical fruit. A hint of residual sugar adds some warmth to the limey palate. Accessible in style, and also one of the more favourably priced examples.

Posted in Spotlight Tasting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.