Chapel Down Bacchus 2018

Chapel Down Bacchus 2018, 12.5%, England

(from £12, Sainsbury’s, Ocado, Waitrose)

Bacchus is a fascinating grape. It’s originally from Germany but the UK seems to have co-opted it as its own and now it’s England’s answer to Sauvignon Blanc – aromatic, tangy and seemingly able to capture the essence of Britain in a glass: elderflower hedgerows and warm early summer fields.

It’s also a grape that is starting to attract attention, both from wine drinkers and wine makers. This is good – but it’s starting to reveal how little we really know about this mysterious grape, and what its potential really is.

I hosted a fascinating event, Bacchus in Focus, at the Roberson winery in London, to discuss this with luminaries including Josh Donaghay-Spire (Chapel Down), Ben Witchell (Flint Vineyard), Tony Milanowski (Plumpton) and Alex Beaumont (Roberson). (There’s a write-up of the event here.)

I compared Bacchus the grape to Bacchus the Roman god (Dionysus to the Greeks). If this particular deity was known for one thing, it was being notoriously hard to pin down: was Bacchus good or evil, male or female, divine or diabolical, inspirer or debaser? 

It’s always ambiguous, reflecting the power of wine (and other forms of intoxication) to bring out both the best and worst in people. 

Bacchus the grape is just as hard to fathom. Some say it’s like Sauvignon Blanc – others like Riesling or Muscat or Verdejo. Does it smell like elderflower, gooseberry, grass, tropical fruit, smoke or stones? Does it bring to mind the Loire, New Zealand, Spain, Alsace, Austria, Germany…or just Britain?

The truth is, we’re only just starting to get to grips with Bacchus. It was bred in Germany in 1933 (Riesling DNA looms large in its parentage) but didn’t come to England until 1973. From then it’s steadily grown in popularity in the UK while it has declined in Germany.

This may be partly because it thrives in a cooler climate (you don’t want to harvest it over-ripe). But it’s also proved popular, winning major awards and acclaim (e.g. Albourne winning Wine of the Year in 2015, Winbirri winning a DWWA Platinum in 2017, Camel Valley’s Darnibole Bacchus being elevated to PDO status). 

We remember doing a blind taste-off on camera at Wine Festival Winchester between a reputable Chablis and Bacchus Fumé from Furleigh in Dorset. As the cameras rolled and a near-unanimous verdict was pronounced, we panicked…we hoped it wasn’t going to be too embarrassing for Furleigh. But when the result was revealed, it was stunning – a landslide in favour of the Bacchus. 

And now of course we’ve just had the stellar 2018 vintage, tailor made for still wines, which is already starting to show its mettle – in this delicious wine, for example.

Chapel Down are the UK’s largest winemaker. In 2018, they made nearly half a million bottles of Bacchus (the usual total is nearer 200K). They are not only wonderfully consistent but have really started to push boundaries at the top end, notably with their Kit’s Coty range (both the 2016 and new 2017 Kit’s Coty Bacchus are looking superb). 

They’re also starting to make a sparkling Bacchus. We’ve tried this a few times lately and really like it. It’s maybe not for purists and this kind of sparkling can fall flat but in this case, it’s really well made and is a delicious summer-drinking sparkling or alternative to Prosecco. It’s £27 at Waitrose and well worth a try.

But back to this Bacchus – it’s a reference point, a beacon in the Bacchus category, as classically English as strawberries and cream. Juicy, refreshing, well balanced, crisp and moreish. Elegant and self-assured, herbal and citric complexity but not too punchy. Ideal, as we discovered, with salmon and asparagus. 

Bacchus really does have an X-factor so I confidently predict we’ll be seeing more of it in the English vineyard, despite the fact that sparkling wine looks set to rule the roost for the foreseeable future. But it makes a nice point of difference – and it’s being made in a range of styles (not only dry white but fizz and sweet – Hattingley’s Entice is well worth a try – and now Chapel Down are even making it into gin and beer…)

The UK’s still wines as a whole are proving very exciting indeed, and Bacchus is a key part of that scene. Watch this space.

(Peter, 6.5/10, June 2019)