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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 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 Case (£95.99) that showcases six of the best:

Camel Valley Bacchus Dry 2018 (£15.99)

When ex-RAF pilot Bob Lindo and his wife Annie planted their first eight thousand vines in 1989, they never dreamed of the phenomenal success they would achieve within two decades. They had bought their farm in the heart of the Cornish countryside several years earlier, seeking a change from service life and the perfect place to bring up their young family, and initially farmed sheep and cattle. Their Bacchus Dry has a unique English style in the best possible way. It has characteristic aromas of hedgerows and apple orchards, bright lemon green in colour, crisp elderflower and grapefruit flavours, medium length, good intensity, with a very fresh clean finish and a hint of sweetness. The grapes were crushed and pressed and the juice cooled to 4°C to retain the special fruit characters that are unique to grapes grown in England, then fermented in stainless steel tanks at no more than 13°C. This wine has won multiple awards, including a Gold Award at the Decanter 2019 World Wine Awards.

Bolney Estate Lychgate Bacchus 2018 (£18.99)

The Bolney Wine Estate in West Sussex is a haven for wildlife, and through its traditional production methods and cultural practices, avidly promotes and maintains soil health, fertility and stability in its vineyards. The sandstone soils are some of the best in the country, providing the ideal setting to grow vines. Their 2018 Lychgate Bacchus is a fresh white with delicate notes of elderflower and gooseberry. This balanced vintage delights the palate, with a long finish that draws out sweet pineapple and grapefruit. English hedgerow and floral notes are also prominent in this classic English still wine. The hand-picked Bacchus and Reichensteiner (which at 5% of the blend, adds slightly more body and the pineapple notes) were whole-bunch pressed and cool-fermented in stainless steel for approximately 14 days, ensuring the retention of the primary fruit aromas. Like most English Bacchus wines, in order to retain a fresher style, this wine is not aged in oak.

Hush Heath Liberty’s English Bacchus 2018 (£17.99)

Hush Heath usually name their wines after family members – in this instance the Bacchus is named after the vineyard’s “Head Dog”. The grapes were hand-picked from Hush Heath Estate’s Foxridge Vineyard in October 2017. The wine underwent cool fermentation at 14°C to 17°C in stainless steel, co-innoculated with a variety of selected yeasts. 15% of the blend was barrel fermented with wild yeasts, giving a more complex palate. In appearance it is pale white gold with green highlights. On the nose it has an intense, grassy smell with hints of rosé petal and citrus spice. In the mouth, one finds fresh acidity, green apple, tangerine peel and a long, bright finish.

Three Choirs Vineyards Cellar Door Bacchus 2017 (14.99)

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 2017 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.

Winbirri Vineyard Bacchus 2018 (£16.99)

Winbirri’s Bacchus has put it on the international stage, with its 2015 vintage winning Decanter’s Best Single-Varietal White Wine in the World Award in 2017. Winbirri believe that their 2018, benefitting from the amazing summer, is even better. The wine has an elegant nose of grapefruits, passionfruits and floral characters backed with a clean crisp finish of incredible length. Winbirri Vineyards has 25 acres in Surlingham, an important Anglo-Saxon settlement on the edge of the Norfolk Broads National Park. The name Winbirri, comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘win’ (wine) and ‘birri’ (grape). It was established in 2007 by experienced fruit farmer, Stephen Dyer, who supplies major retailers. He spotted an opportunity and planted around 2½ acres with vines. Stephen’s son, Lee, took over at the age of 32 in 2010 when the first commercial plantings took place. All sites have been carefully selected so that they are not in frost pockets and each site has a lower-lying field for the frost to run off to. The soils are very light, sandy loams with clay about 6ft down. There is a high flint content and all pruning is carried out by hand.

Forty Hall Vineyard Bacchus 2018 (£15.99)

The wine is fresh, light, bright and clean with flavours of crisp apples, and aromas of gooseberry and blackcurrant. A great aperitif and food-matches with shellfish, seafood and oriental dishes. Great to drink now but will develop nicely over the next two years. Forty Hall Vineyard is an exciting social enterprise which has established a 10-acre organic vineyard in north London. Run and managed by local people, the vineyard is the first commercial scale vineyard in London since the middle ages. The vineyard produces and sells quality English still and sparkling wines. Situated on Capel Manor College’s Forty Hall Farm, they are certified organic and dedicated to demonstrating environmentally sustainable farming and vine-growing practices.

Do feel free to construct your own mixed case (or just buy a bottle or two) of Bacchus from our full range of 15. 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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