Bacchus in focus

Part of the eclectic mixture of events, promotions and tastings which were hosted around the UK for English Wine Week, on Wednesday 29 May, Roberson Wine held a ‘Bacchus in Focus’ masterclass at its winery in Fulham, London. 

Designed by the family-run, independent wine merchant, who also produces an English Bacchus on-site in the UK’s first urban winery under its own label London Cru, the event successfully created a new platform where trade, press and those involved in the industry could hear the story of this promising grape variety and what it means for the UK still wine category. 

“Today is very much about sharing knowledge so we can spread the word about this exciting grape,” said Talya Roberson, director at Roberson wine as she opened the event. “When London Cru started, we were bringing grapes in from Europe, but now we are exclusively English. We have been making Bacchus since 2014 and are here to share the love of the grape, the excitement of English wine, particularly English still wine, and where it can go.” 

A short session of presentations was led by Peter Richards MW, who along with wife Suzie, also an MW, has been keeping a close eye on the English wine scene, and the role of Bacchus.

“There are now 200-hecatres of Bacchus in the UK, and while there has been a monumental shift from Germanic, aromatic styles which dominated the 1990s, to the traditional method varietals, Bacchus has hung in there and there is a reason for that,” said Peter. “Aptly named after the god of wine, Bacchus is a complex and intriguing character. It is a real flagbearer for English wines, but in my mind it is far too early to make judgement on a variety which we are only just starting to get to know. When it comes to this grape, we are only just starting to get to grips with the tip of the iceberg, so we are here today to discuss it’s true potential.” 

From Chapel Down, winemaker Josh Donaghay-Spire focused on the diversity of styles of Bacchus across England. The oldest Bacchus at the Kent-based estate was planted in 1987 and over the 10 years Josh has been working with it, it has shown potential for many different styles of wine. 

“Not everything works, but it is our duty and responsibility to explore what can work,” said Josh, who ran the audience through the numerous styles of Bacchus Chapel Down has produced, from the classic, to single estate blends, an orange wine, ones which have been barrel aged, and finally, the carbonated Bacchus which was released earlier in May.

“We have huge confidence in the variety and cannot make enough. The spirit of English wine is experimentation and innovation. We currently make seven very different Bacchus, there is a place for them all within our range and it will be a strong part of what we do for years to come.” 

Providing insights into the internal workings of Bacchus, Ben Witchell from Norfolk’s Flint Vineyard, ran through the history of the grape, which is a cross of Riesling x Sylvaner and Müller-Thurgau, and the characteristics of the grape. 

“It is a vigorous variety, which is why a lot of the ripe Bacchus tends to come from the East of England where it is much drier,” said Ben, who applies various winemaking techniques to different batches before blending to create Flint’s final Bacchus wine. “We think that it is similar to Sauvignon blanc but I did some research on 20 typical 100% Bacchus wines from England and found it is very complex, with few overtly abundant aroma compounds. We still don’t know enough but we do know it is exciting to work with.” 

As the quality of still Bacchus wines is driven by its organoleptic character, Tony Milanowski, head of winemaking at Plumpton College, talked about how producers can deliver a Bacchus style. 

“Bacchus is a cool-climate variety with both thiol and terpene profiles,” said Tony. “Winemakers can heighten the strength of these through fermentation and there are a lot of opportunities. As well as choosing when to harvest, producers can take very different approaches to effectively influence the style of Bacchus, from skin contact, to controlling oxygen, yeast strain selection, the use of non-saccharomyces yeasts, the temperature of fermentation and the use of enzymes which release aromas.” 

Working with the Roberson trade team, Alex Beaumont looked at what the classic, fruit and flower elements of Bacchus match with. The high acidity, light wines, deliver a low alcohol making them well suited for food. 

“When looking at what to eat with Bacchus, there is no need to overcomplicate things; Bacchus has a natural affinity with our cuisine,” said Alex. “Anything you can squeeze a lemon on will go with Bacchus. There are two main food elements which aid Bacchus, including acidity, which will increase the perception of body and richness, and salt which will decrease the perception of bitterness or pronounced acidity. I also think chilli heat can be a really good match, especially for those in an off dry style, and fat, because the high acidity cuts through the richness of fat to provide refreshing sensation on the palate.”

Following the presentations, guests were treated to fish and chips, which had been selected as an ideal pairing for the comprehensive tasting of the Bacchus from around the country. Producers including Bolney Wine Estate, Chapel Down, Flint Vineyard, Hattingley Valley, London Cru, Lyme Bay Winery, Tuffon Hall Vineyard and Woodchester Valley were all present to showcase their unique approach to this diverse grape variety.

For more information on London Cru, winemaker Alex Hurley spoke to Vineyard magazine for this month’s In Conversation, see page 26, and Matthew Jukes has also reviewed the producer’s Rosaville Rd Pinot Noir 2018 on page 28.

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