Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Bacchus symposium de-codes potential of English wine’s “flag bearer”

Published:  30 May, 2019

Experimentation is the key to unlocking the potential of Bacchus, which is fast becoming a “flag bearer” for English wine, industry experts have said.

Despite a “major paradigm shift” in the structure of English wine over the past 30 years, from off-dry Germanic wine styles to traditional method sparkling, Bacchus has held onto its status as the grape responsible for the fourth largest area under vine – a position that it held in 1990 and still holds today.

However, the English wine industry is still only just peeling back the skin of this variety, which was subject of a symposium organised by London Cru-producer Roberson Wine in London yesterday.

Bacchus’ enduring status and potential was highlighted by host Peter Richards MW.

He pointed out that in 1990, England’s area under vine was led by Müller-Thurgau (185 ha), Seyval Blanc (123 ha), Reichensteiner (114 ha) and in fourth place, Bacchus (76 ha).

Whereas in 2019, Bacchus has grown to 200 ha, behind the classic Champagne and English sparkling varieties Pinot Noir (859 ha), Chardonnay (835 ha) and Pinot Meunier (317 ha).

“Is Bacchus the UK’s answer to Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc? My instinct is no. Fizz will continue to lead the charge, but it's essential for any country, for its credibility and commercial viability, for it to have diversity – provided that quality is maintained. That's exactly what English still wine is doing now with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Noir Précoce, Pinot Gris and of course, Bacchus. Bacchus has a wonderful aromatic character that means it can’t be anything but a flag bearer for English wine. It’s also an incredibly exotic and expressive grape variety which is why it's so distinctive,” Richards said.

A distinct effort is now underway among some of the UK’s top winemakers and educators to better de-code Bacchus and raise its profile.

This was evident at yesterday’s masterclass and tasting, where a number of still, sweet and sparkling Bacchus wines were shown.

Among them was a single vineyard Bacchus from grapes grown on Chapel Down’s best site, Kits Coty, and also the producer’s latest launch – a 100% Bacchus sparkler which is due to be released in June.

Chapel Down has also been experimenting with orange wine, and even non-wine products such as a sour ale made using the lees from the Kits Coty Bacchus barrels, a brut-style IPA blended with Bacchus juice, and finally a gin made using Bacchus skins post-press which are then made into a grappa and blended with neutral English wheat spirit and botanicals.

Josh Donaghay-Spire, head winemaker at Chapel Down, said: “We had 25 acres unplanted in Kits Coty, and we thought – in the spirit of experimentation – we’ve never had Bacchus from a really warm site, on chalk. It's a site that makes top, top Chardonnay. We’re trying to push the envelope of Bacchus past £13, and [the Kits Coty Bacchus] retails at £25 and sells out quickly, so it’s being taken seriously. My opinion is Bacchus can be a world class wine.”

Chapel Down currently produces seven Bacchus wines and produced volumes of just under half a million bottles of Bacchus from the bumper 2018 vintage.

Bacchus is a ‘cross, cross’: Müller-Thurgau crossed with a Silvaner-Riesling. Müller-Thurgau is already a cross between Riesling and Madeleine Royale, so Bacchus can be associated with Riesling, which is very aromatic and also slightly neutral like Müller-Thurgau, presenters at the Roberson event agreed.

Richards compared its versatile nature to “Bacchus the Roman god, which, like his Greek incarnation Dionysus, is notoriously difficult to pin down and define. Was Bacchus good or evil, was he divine or diabolical? It's always ambiguous, like wine, which is able to bring out the best and worst in people. This wonderfully ambiguous, intriguing character are the traits exhibited in Bacchus. Is it like Sauvignon Blanc or like Riesling, Muscat or Verdicchio? Is it tropical, mineral, or smoky? Does it bring to mind the Loire Valley or New Zealand or Germany, Alsace, Austria, Spain?”

Bacchus’ suitability for the UK climate was also highlighted.

Flint Vineyard’s Ben Witchell said: “Bacchus has a naturally high must weight so it comes in very ripe, which is fantastic for England as we’re one of the cooler winemaking regions. Its naturally low acidity is also very useful when you’re making it like Sauvingon Blanc, which is very aromatic. There is a lot of character in the grape. Style can be influenced in the winemaking process and also when you pick. Overripe, Bacchus results in tropical, almost sweaty styles, whereas underripe styles can be a bit more austere and citrusy.”

In terms of aroma compounds, research undertaken by Flint Vineyards in conjunction with Campden BRI found that Bacchus is perhaps more complex than originally thought.

Unlike Sauvignon Blanc, Bacchus doesn't have abundant individual aroma compounds, and operates on a complex backdrop of aromatic esters which come from fermentation, along with a mixture of thiols and terpenes.

“We found one terpene in particular that’s found in Gewürztraminer. It's really interesting and gives the wine sweet, basil flavours. One of the compounds which is less understood in wine is the oxime family. It’s generally associated with whisky and whisky faults, but it can also have fruity characteristics. In small amounts it can cause quite interesting flavours. I think it’s what makes Bacchus so interesting: mysterious and at the same time complex to understand,” Witchell added.