English sparkling wine is world-class, but there's much more to come from bacchus, our unsung signature grape

Bacchus is shaking off
its austere reputation,
and emerging from the
Brit-fizz shadows
Bacchus is shaking off its austere reputation, and emerging from the Brit-fizz shadows Credit:  Gareth Fuller

If you wanted a satirical name for wine made in a waterlogged field by doughty Anglo-Saxons determined to ignore the grey skies and chilly climate, then “bacchus” would probably do it. Bacchus: god of wine and ecstatic celebration, often surrounded by satyrs and nymphs. Transplanted to England, it has a whiff of Brian Potter’s Phoenix Club. But it’s what we have.

The bacchus grape was engineered in Germany in the Thirties. It came here in 1973 and is the closest thing England has to a signature variety, making still wines that smell of grassy meadows and hawthorn; elderflower and citrus. The question now being asked is not how good bacchus can get as English wine improves (thanks to climate change and better know-how), but is there a place for it at all?

English wine owes its current success to a strategic switch from making still and sparkling wine from (mainly) German varieties to sparkling wine made from champagne varieties. Today, bacchus is the fourth most-planted grape in England and Wales (with 6.9 per cent of plantings) but more than two thirds of the national vineyard consists of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier, and it’s as a producer of sparkling wine that England can claim to be world-class. Thus, “England messing around with bacchus is like Messi playing first XI club cricket and being half-decent at it: bit of a waste of energy,” said one Twitter commentator the other week.

Certainly, with fizz the new English standard-bearer, those coming into the industry from the City are not building their financial models around bacchus. But while it takes serious focus and application to be the best in any field, England is surely big enough to absorb a bit of diversification without compromising on what currently looks to be its strongest card.

“Maybe Messi is good at cricket!” says Bob Lindo, who founded Camel Valley vineyard in Cornwall in 1989. He tasted his first bacchus in 1994 and says it was, “like a light being switched on”. Two years ago, Camel Valley became the first English wine producer to win a Protected Designated Origin (PDO) for a single vineyard – planted with bacchus.

“Bacchus is a serious part of what we do,” says Lindo. “We have an unquenchable demand and sell out of many thousands of bottles every year. It is a very important part of economic viability.”

At Chapel Down in Kent, the recent release of a £100 cuvée made from champagne varieties was a testament to continued investment in and ambition for sparkling wine. But attention is also paid to bacchus.

Chapel Down Wines in Kent Credit: Jason Alden

“We’ve been growing it for 45 years and I’ve been working with it for 10. That’s nothing. What can bacchus achieve? It’s our responsibility to explore the styles,” Chapel Down’s winemaker Josh Donaghay-Spire told a Bacchus Forum last month.

Over the past six years, Chapel Down has almost tripled its bacchus plantings – from 48.5 acres in 2013 to 140 acres today. In the same period, Donaghay-Spire has added another three bacchus wines to the four that were already under the Chapel Down label: one in the new Kit’s Coty range, made from vineyards planted on chalk; a sparkling one; and an orange one – “it’s not a natural wine, it’s a bacchus fermented with wild yeast, on the skins, because that’s where the aromatics are and I wanted to see what happened when you got them all out.”

Others are experimenting with ageing. At Albourne Estate in Sussex they have just released a Bacchus Frizzante – a lightly sparkling white in which the bite of bubbles emphasises the leaner, more citrus-and-nettle side of the grape. Albourne Estate Bacchus Frizzante costs £14.95 and is available from the cellar door (albourneestate.com) and independent retailers in Sussex. It’s a refreshing and attractive summer drink, even if the price puts it squarely in the “experience” category rather than competing on QPR (quality-price ratio) with prosecco or cheap champagne.

Bacchus will never be cheap, so it has to be good. I feel the best of the grape will come from fine-tuning, and especially from finding the best sites from which to create a dry, still white wine, for youthful drinking, at the £12-18 mark. Here, its competitors will be the cheaper Sancerres and Sancerre satellites; albariño from Rias Baixas; sauvignon blanc from New Zealand.

The best bacchus wines from England are getting better all the time and I enjoy drinking them – though they still look a bit pricy. It’s fair to say the breakthrough point is yet to come. Will it ever come? Let’s see.

To build a serious name, there needs to be a hard core of serious producers making good wines. The trajectory of English sparkling wine has shown us that it’s also helpful to have one or two names that can pull rabbits out of hats in blind tastings against wines from other countries, which probably isn’t going to happen, given that the international status of bacchus is not exactly up there with sauvignon blanc.

But one thing is clear: it’s too early to give up on the grape. I’m excited to see different styles emerging – from the slightly more tropical to bright and citrusy and hedgerowy. So take your pick of the three bottles below – and let me know what you think.

Wines of the week

Chapel Down Bacchus 2018, England

(12%, £12-14, Chapel Down cellar door, also available at Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Ocado and independents though in some cases it’s the 2017 on shelf)

One of Chapel Down’s seven bacchus wines and a good example of the grape – refreshing, with flavours of green melon, lemon and nettle.

Lyme Bay Bacchus Block 2017, England

(11.5%, £17.25, lymebaywinery.co.uk)

Lyme Bay makes two good versions of bacchus – the cheaper Sandbar and this, which comes from a single vineyard in Essex (the winery is in Devon). This has none of the barbed-wire personality you sometimes find in bacchus – it’s broad and complex, all pink grapefruit, box and coriander.

Ldn Cru Baker St Bacchus 2018, England

(12%, £13.50 down from £15, robersonwine.com)

Made in London from fruit grown in Kent and West Sussex, this is aromatic, very dry and full of hawthorn, citrus and elderflower. It moves through the mouth with a swish of acidity. Ldn Cru suggests drinking it with fish and chips.