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Bacchus: a divine grape

Bacchus. A fantastic name for a wine grape, Bacchus being the Greek god of grape-harvest, winemaking and wine. English wine producers are lucky that this product of the extensive German 20th century vine breeding programme has a name that is not just easily pronounceable to an English speaker – unlike some of its stable-mates: Siegerrebe, Reichensteiner, Huxelrebe – but has the brand image of the god of wine to support it.

So, how did Bacchus come into being? In the mythology of the deity, Bacchus was born at least twice, with a complicated parentage. First time round it was Zeus and Persephone; then after Bacchus was destroyed by the Titans, Zeus took a fragment of Bacchus and implanted it in the womb of a mortal, Semele, whom he then killed for daring to request that he actually sleep with him – at which point he transplanted Bacchus into another mortal, Nysus.

The lineage of the Bacchus grape is at least as complicated! It is a cross of Muller-Thurgau with a Silvaner/Riesling cross. Silvaner itself is a cross of Traminer and Oesterreichish Weiss, while Muller-Thurgau is a Riesling/Madeleine Royal cross. So, several aromatic grapes with a good dose of the “noble” grape Riesling, and some Traminer, a parent of Gewürztraminer.

What are the circumstances behind this tangled web of grape varieties? The story of modern vine breeding is a tale of early successes followed by a failure to focus enough on wine quality, before a renaissance and resurgence led by advancing scientific techniques. The crises of the late 19th century, which saw phylloxera (a louse which damages a vine’s roots, leading to its inevitable death), downy mildew and powdery mildew ravage European viticulture, were the stimulus for the establishment of vine breeding programmes in France and then Germany. Relatively rapid progress was made on rootstocks, which was partly responsible for the devastating threat of phylloxera being repelled, although not eliminated.

Breeding efforts for fungal disease resistance were not as successful, although resistant varieties were obtained. Even after decades of breeding the wine quality characteristics of the new varieties did not reach sufficient levels. The three factors that were being selected for – resistance, quality and yield – could not be combined in a small number of breeding steps, due to the polygenic nature of the characteristics: that is, multiple genes impact the expression of these dimensions, complicating efforts to manipulate the outcome. Therefore, several back-crosses were necessary in order to achieve sufficient resistance levels and high wine quality. The lengthy generation and evaluation cycles meant that many breeders, especially the private breeders in France, gave up.

The varieties that were introduced during the first part of the 20th century (in other words, ones that hadn’t spent enough time in the evaluation part of the cycle), produced low quality wines. These so-called “hybrids” quickly suffered from a bad image and in public the term hybrid was synonymous with poor quality. Consequently, the production of quality wine (as legally defined) from these hybrids was forbidden by most wine producing countries. This led to the termination of grape vine breeding in most countries by mid-20th century. However, in Germany, fungal resistance breeding was, and still is, supported by the government.

It was in the main German vine breeding institute, the Geilweilerhof Institute for Grape Breeding (now consolidated into the Julius Kühn-Institut, the German Federal Research Centre for Cultivated Plants) that Bacchus was born, in 1933. Its physical parentage was a Silvaner-Riesling vine crossed with Müller-Thurgau, but it was the brainchild of Peter Morio and Bernhard Husfeld. Peter Morio was responsible for several crossings including Domina, Forta, Noblessa, and Optima (such positive names!) but it seems likely that it will be Bacchus that is his enduring legacy.

It took almost 40 years for Bacchus to receive varietal protection and be released for general cultivation. In Germany itself, Bacchus has not been a runaway success, with initial enthusiasm diminishing and the area under vine reducing from around 3.6% of vineyard area in the 1985 to just 1.7% by 2016, mainly in Rheinhessen and Franken. Anecdotally, this was in part due to the lower acidity levels in Bacchus grapes, which was out of kilter with market preferences, although it should be noted that interest in general for hybrids in Germany reduced from the turn of the millennium.

In England, with its even more marginal climate, acidity levels in Bacchus grapes typically come out slightly higher. The “fresher” phenolics, that give the wine its Sauvignon-Blanc-esque aromas and flavours, are also more prominent in English Bacchus wines. Of course, Sauvignon Blanc has a wide range of aroma and flavour expressions; in our experience, English Bacchus wines often fall somewhere between the typical French and New Zealand styles of Sauvignon Blanc, although there are examples at either end of the spectrum.

From a technical perspective, the biochemistry which allows this broad range of expressions is the presence of certain compounds: terpenes, thiols and methoxypyrazines. Terpenes are found in abundance in Gewürztraminer (Bacchus sharing Traminer parentage with it as mentioned earlier) and thiols are present in large quantities in Sauvignon Blanc. The thiols are responsible for aromas such as passionfruit, grapefruit and blackcurrant. The terpenes give spicy and floral notes (e.g. rose, geranium, ginger). The fresher aromas of nettle and elderflower come through due to methoxypyrazines.

With Sauvignon Blanc so popular amongst English wine consumers, Bacchus’ similarities made it an easier sell than some other German-origin varieties. So, Bacchus was already gaining a serious following in England, but when Winbirri Vineyard’s Bacchus 2015 won the Best White Single-Varietal Wine in the World in the Decanter 2017 World Wine Awards, its progress was turbocharged. For a while now, Bacchus has been talked of in the wine press as “England’s signature grape”; it regularly has articles devoted to it, such as the recent Decanter September 2019 edition Top 18 English Bacchus feature. [We stock 7 of these]. Bacchus is currently the 4th most planted grape in England and Wales, behind the three main “Champagne” grapes, with around 200ha of planting by 2018.

Of course, as with all media trends, it is possible that the hype is getting ahead of itself. Also, not every vineyard site will be best-suited to this variety, and the danger is that producers jump on the varietal bandwagon when their sites are not optimal for this grape. A tasting in June 2019 of 36 English Bacchus wines was assessed by www.jancisrobinson.com as demonstrating “standards [that] were solid rather than spectacular”. Part of the issue, as they acknowledged, was that several of the wines were recently released from the 2018 vintage and showing slightly reductive notes that might dissipate.

At Grape Britannia we have tasted extensively across the range of available English Bacchus wines and only stock those that, in our view, are of a technically high quality, display good varietal typicity, but also have that certain something to them that makes you want to go back for that extra sip – freshness, complexity and balance.

We’ve curated a Bacchus Mixed 6 Case that showcases six of the best. There also a Bacchus Mixed 12 Case for those wanting to really explore this fabulous grape variety. Some excellent current examples are:

Dillions Vineyard Bacchus 2020 (£17.99)

This wine is dry with citrussy aromas and a light straw colour. Delicious notes of elderflower, gooseberry and white stone fruits shine through, along with subtle notes of rhubarb and violets. Dillions planted their first vines in May 2019 and since then the whole family has been tending and learning and delighting in their growth. David and Lisa Trott are the husband and wife at the helm of Dillions. With Lisa’s design background and David’s passion for good wine they are a team that complement each other well.

Lyme Bay Bacchus 2020 (£15.99)

Thanks to England’s cool maritime climate and long growing season, Lyme Bay’s Bacchus shows fresh and bright acidity with a complex and pronounced delivery of citrus, green mango, blackcurrant leaf and minerality, plus English hedgerow character. After crushing and destemming, the segregated juices were cold settled for 48 hours before being inoculated with four specially selected yeast strains to maximise the varietal character. Following fermentation, the wine was gently racked, then left to age on fine lees to improve structure and mouth-feel before being bottled. The wine was then allowed to settle and develop in-bottle for several months, before release.

Hush Heath Liberty’s English Bacchus 2020 (£17.99)

In the words of respected wine journalist Tanlyn Currin “I’d have this wine over a clanging New Zealand Sauvignon any day”.  Liberty’s Bacchus is named after the vineyards’ Head Dog, and is made from grapes grown on the Foxridge vineyards, at the very top of Hush Heath Estate.

An evolution of the English Bacchus style and from a winemaking standpoint our most complex wine to make. Wild ferments and oak are used to create layers of complexity, body and a spicy character which add a new dimension to the traditional Bacchus flavours of hedgerow and elderflower.

An intense, fresh, complex wine that is perfect for drinking on its own but wonderful also rewards matching with food. Try English asparagus, artichoke, salami, and oriental cuisine.

Three Choirs Vineyards Cellar Door Bacchus 2020 (£16.99)

An elegant, dry and aromatic wine, with distinctive hints of elderflower and nettle on the nose, a crisp herbaceous palate and a subtle vanilla finish from the gentle oak ageing, giving a long, but delicate finish. The Three Choirs Vineyard is south facing on sandy loam soil with a GDC trellis system with 2000 vines per hectare. Most vines are relatively mature, being 10-20 years old, and all grapes are hand-picked. The 2018 harvest produced an above average crop with good ripeness levels and most importantly a good level of crisp acidity. The wine required minimum intervention in the winery and produced a wine of typical varietal character.

Albourne Estate Bacchus 2019 (£14.99)

Albourne Estate’s Bacchus is a blend of multiple unique batches. Bacchus is one of the stars of their range, delivering a distinctive wine characterised by water-white paleness, a crisp refreshing mouthfeel and notable aromatic complexity. The diversity of aromas range from elderflower to green pepper, from mango to lime, to lemon thyme, fresh Thai basil & oregano. Alison Nightingale began her working life in multi-national marketing before changing to a more creative, fulfilling and balanced path, setting up Albourne Estate. She selected the site of the vineyard not only for its stunning views of the South Downs, but for its slope, aspect, altitude and geology: tracing the beautiful south-facing slope of a low ridge created by underlying Cretaceous green sandstone. These features provide excellent drainage, low frost risk and maximum sun exposure.

Chapel Down Bacchus 2020 (£14.99)

Chapel Down Bacchus is aromatic and fresh in style. It has aromas of melon and peach with background floral notes. The palate is well balanced and it has a light and delicate finish. Grapes are grown predominantly on single and double guyot pruning systems, on varied soils including, chalk, clay and loam soils. Whole-bunch pressing retains the aromatic purity of this wine, which is fermented at cool temperatures. Blending and clarification takes place after 6 months on lees in tank.

Do feel free to construct your own mixed case (or just buy a bottle or two) of Bacchus from our full range. Whether it is your first exploration of English Bacchus wines, or you are taking the opportunity to stock up on one of your favourite varieties, you will find wines here for you.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that, rather than being a god of drunkenness, as he is often depicted, Bacchus’s activities focused on the correct consumption of wine, with its roles in easing suffering and bringing joy – a philosophy that we fully endorse.

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