The Bacchus Grape
Here at English Wine Kiosk we’re keen to start sharing our knowledge and spreading the word about how great English wine truly is. To fully understand our favourite tipple, it’s important to look beyond the bottle and grasp the inner workings of the grapes themselves. That’s why we’ll be writing articles focusing on particular grape varieties, so you can learn all their individual quirks and characters, flavours and aromas. We’re getting the ball rolling with the god of wine, Bacchus!
Bacchus is one of everyone’s favourite Roman gods: the god of wine. You’ll be delighted to know that he embodies the spirit of all things frivolous, carefree and hedonistic. He was a wandering hero, a true trailblazer and the founder of many cities. Bacchus’ affinity with wine begins with the humble grape, but as all good myths go, the story of Bacchus begins with a tumultuous love affair…
Bacchus, (an exact replica of the Greek god Dionysus) had a troubled start to life. His father was the almighty god of all gods, Jupiter, (Zeus in Greek mythology). Jupiter was the all-powerful, over-seeing god who happened to have a roaming eye for pretty women, a trait which his wife, Juno, (Hera) was less than pleased with. The risk of destroying his matrimonial happiness didn’t discourage Jupiter from conducting numerous dalliances and affairs, all of which Juno inevitably discovered and punished those involved with a vengeance.
Bacchus’ mother happened to be one such unfortunate unsuspecting soul. Semele was a pretty mortal; she attracted the attention of Jupiter and carried his child. Upon hearing of his husband’s most recent escapade of unfaithfulness, Juno appeared before Semele in the guise of an old crone and commented upon her flourishing bump, questioning who the father was. Semele was delighted to confide in her that the child she bore was the offspring of Jupiter and would therefore be semi-divine. Unfortunately, Juno, (who had known this all along) feigned disbelief and berated Semele for telling such lies. Her reasoning was: why would the supreme god deem to solicit a mere mortal woman like herself? Juno’s performance was so convincing that Semele fell into a state of despair, doubting herself until she believed the crone’s words and felt sure that Jupiter could not be the true father and that she had been duped by a dishonest rogue. Her distress was such that Juno suggested the only way to know for certain whether Jupiter was the father of her child would be to ask him to reveal himself in his full divine glory.
The next time Semele encountered Jupiter, (they continued their affair every full moon) she asked him to make her a promise. Having agreed, Jupiter was distraught to hear his beloved Semele asking him to show himself as a true god. A god’s promise cannot be broken and tragically a mortal cannot witness a god in their divine state without dying. It was Juno’s perfect revenge. As Jupiter revealed himself in a glorious burst of light, Semele was struck dead by the sight. Grieving for the child she carried, Jupiter cut out the baby’s heart from Semele’s body and sewed it into his own thigh, (we never said this story was going to be logical…).
Nine months later, Jupiter ‘gave birth’ to his son, Bacchus. Understandably, Juno was furious. Bacchus was raised far away from Olympus in a bid to mitigate Juno’s wrath, but still she cursed him. Some versions of this fantastical myth claim Bacchus was raised as a girl in an attempt to avoid Juno’s glare. As Bacchus grew up, he discovered the cultivation of grape vines and became the first to establish a method of extracting the precious juice and turning it into wine. For this we will forever be in his debt!
As Bacchus developed his close connection to nature and the vine in particular, Juno cast her long-awaited for revenge, driving him to madness. His destiny was to forever wander the globe in a state of delusion and hysteria. However, poor slighted Juno was not to reap the rewards of watching her nemesis struggling through insanity for help came to Bacchus in the form of the goddess Cybele, (Rhea in Greek). Cybele took pity on the young man and though she could not fully reverse Juno’s decree, (only the god/goddess who proclaimed the infliction could remove it) she taught Bacchus religious rites and bade him to teach his knowledge of cultivating vines to those he encountered as he wandered. This is one notion of how the humble grape vine has extended its presence across the continents, though some sources say Bacchus never reached England or Ethiopia…we must have another god looking after us over here!
So, it came to be that our protagonist travelled great distances, building cities as he went and imparting his love and knowledge of vines and winemaking. He soon cultivated a following of his own as the effects of his beloved liquid delighted all those who tasted it. Bacchus is often depicted with a procession of wild female maenads, (followers) and bearded satyrs who are bedecked in wreaths of ivy and have serpents in their hair, (Bacchus rules over the ivy plant too as the antithesis to the grape vine). He always carries a fennel staff topped with a pinecone, known as a thyrsus and alongside the grape, holds the fig as sacred. For some inexplicable reason, he favours riding in a chariot drawn by a leopard or a panther. If you can, then why not?
Now we come to the twist in the tale: our multifaceted semi-divine being holds a dark underlying secret. He is certainly applauded for his gaiety and his wine’s ability to free his followers from any self-consciousness or fear, (he is sometimes referred to as ‘the Liberator’) but Bacchus also holds the reins over chaos, debauchery and danger. His intoxicating liquid releases those who drink it from the restraints of their meagre everyday lives and encourages wanton disregard for law, obligation and societal confinements. With every sip, it is said that the drinker embodies the spirit of Bacchus, including the part of him which was driven to madness.
Despite this dark, precarious, erratic side of Bacchus’ character, the other gods loved him. He was an attractive man and created jollity with his free-flowing wine, (the gods obviously never drank too much as to sink into the depths of despair as mere mortals do). To Juno’s horror and great dismay, the gods wished Bacchus to join the Olympian 12. This was the ultimate power council at the top of Mount Olympus, but there were only 12 chairs…
Enter Vesta, (Hestia) the virgin goddess of hearth and home. Vesta graciously conceded her seat to Bacchus saying that she felt her presence was more useful amongst her people. This twist of fate catapulted Bacchus from being a mortal, albeit already semi-divine, to the status of immortal Olympian. He is the only god born from a mortal mother. You can imagine the party he threw to celebrate!
Bacchus in Wine
As a grape vine, Bacchus is the antithesis to its wild and unruly namesake being an obliging plant, content in many different soils and locations. Whilst drawing its heritage from ancient mythology, Bacchus is considered a baby in the world of grape vines. Bacchus was created by Peter Morio and Professor Husfeld at the Geilweilerhof Institute for Grape Breeding in Germany in 1933. In comparison, Cabernet Sauvignon dates to the 17th century and is only regarded as ‘middle-aged’. However, new grape varieties are not simply released into the countryside on a whim and it wasn’t until 1972 that Bacchus was officially recognised and authorised for commercial planting. This bright young upstart is a hardy vine being the offspring of a Silvaner x Riesling crossing and Müller-Thurgau. This parentage has favoured Bacchus with beautiful aromatics, great potential complexity and versatility and a strong survival instinct.
England’s cool climate is perfect for Bacchus. Our land allows the acidity to increase meaning we can produce single varietal Bacchus wines of fantastic purity of flavour, whereas in other countries Bacchus often lacks acidity and is blended with other grape varieties.
Today, Bacchus is the fourth most planted grape variety in England, (second only to Chardonnay for white varieties) with 5.6% of the total hectarage. It ripens relatively early and is fortunately resistant to many diseases. Its vibrant, fresh style appeals to many and it can be made in a wide range of styles from crisp, light white still wine to gently oaked versions. Orange wine, (where the wine is left in contact with its skins to deepen the colour and flavour) has been experimented with and some producers are now playing around with sparkling Bacchus. It’s an exciting time for this versatile grape as we begin to understand its true potential in England and discover the fascinating flavour profiles it’s capable of exhibiting. Like its namesake, the grape is multitudinous in its expressions.
If you’re a fan of Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier or un-oaked Chardonnay, you’ll love Bacchus. Often attributed with delightful aromatics of fresh apple, white pear and honeysuckle, Bacchus creates a beautifully elegant, light style of wine which is perfect as an aperitif or paired with salads or seafood. Be sure to seek out Camel Valley’s extra special Darnibole Bacchus – the wine is made from a single Protected Designation of Origin, (PDO) vineyard, (the only vineyard to be awarded this status in England). Bolney Estate also make a fantastic version and Winbirri Vineyard in Norfolk put Bacchus well and truly on the map by winning a Platinum Best in Show award at the Decanter Wine Awards 2017.
Let these wines transport you with flavours reminiscent of rich summer meadows, gentle floral notes and a hint of fresh grass. Zesty citrus characters create a mouth-watering texture and lead to a delicate, refined finish. Next time you take a sip of these delights, (and don’t forget to try the other styles Bacchus can produce!) remember to raise a glass to the god of wine, but make sure you don’t catch his madness…