Wine & Art - Denbie's Bacchus paired with the Mildenhall Treasure
Updated: Feb 14, 2021
Matching a wine with a Roman Britain dish. Read on to see how I've chosen two "unbelievably" British pairings.
When I first thought about what kind of wine I wanted to pair with The Great Dish of the Mildenhall treasure, I wanted a steely white wine. One which seems it's almost glistening in the glass as it's poured, one which is perfect served extra chilled, which makes the glass frost up with condensation, adding a metallic silvery hue to the wine on a hot summer's day. The impressive silver Great Dish draws in the crowds whilst they meander through the British Museum, some knowing what they're looking at, others listening on their audio guides, some joining in as they've seen this particular spot is extra busy. And it's the sparkling brightness which stops so many people in their tracks, wanting to know how this fits in with Roman Britain, can it really be from here and date back to the 4th century? Surely not.
In terms of the wine pairing I wanted a wine which is super citrusy, with fresh juicy lemons, limes and that pleasant metallic note, perhaps even some elderflower and pear too, but I was shying away from Sauvignon Blanc at first. So those tasting notes narrowed it down somewhat... obviously a wine with no oak, no skin contact, a light refreshing style. But where from? The Mildenhall Treasure is an example of Roman silver found in Britain, so an Italian wine could work, or let's throw one out their and how about an English wine? I also wanted to tie in the fact that Bacchus, the God of wine played quite an important part in the decoration of the plate. Hey Bacchus, England's white grape variety we have really taken under our wing, now that's an idea!
So yes, the wine I've chosen is made from the Bacchus grape, it really had to be didn't it, and this particular one is straight off the shelves from Marks and Spencer, so nice and easy to get hold off. 2018 Bacchus Reserve from Denbies Wine Estate, based in Dorking, Surrey. It's first vineyard was planted in 1986, and has gone on to become one of the largest wine producers in the UK, yet still retaining a high quality in the wine it produces; from its award winning sparkling and rose wines, as well as an international gold for it's Noble Harvest Dessert wine which I am yet to try!
This interesting little grape is fairly new onto the wine scene, and is believed to have been a combination of a Riesling-Silvaner cross with Müller-Thurgau, first done so in Germany in the 1930's. It's doing really great over here in England, the cool temperatures enabling a high acidity, alongside juicy citrus fruits, crisp Granny Smith apples, tart gooseberries, a kind of delicate version of a Sauvignon Blanc some might say.
British Museum website
And how does this pair with the Great Dish of the Mildenhall Treasure?
It's a fantastic wine, and for people who don't know to much about English wine, haven't tried it and are perhaps a little sceptical of how great our wines have the potential to be, this is a great starting point and certainly a show stopper. Blind tasting it, someone would no doubt very surprised to hear it's English wine, which leads me nicely onto the Mildenhall Treasure...and we'll have to start with the controversy for this pairing. This example of fine Roman silver still has some people questioning that's it's not British at all. First of all the style and quality of the work doesn't resemble that of Roman Britain, and also that the piece shows no evidence of any damage from it's apparent discovery with a plough or shovel. Some scholars have even gone as far to suggest that the Treasures did in fact come from somewhere else, looted from sites in Italy during World War Two and brought back to England to be reburied so as to stage a "discovery". I like to imagine offering this wine to someone, letting them try it without giving anything away and so they can enjoy it. On revealing it's an English wine, perhaps they would point blank refuse to accept that it's made here, surely we don't make such good quality wine and it has to be from some other wine making country? But it is, and yes we do, and this is just one example of how great our wines really are, and I do encourage to start drinking more of them!
Back to the dish, it's the general consensus today is that this is a 4th century Roman Britain find, from the soils of Suffolk and was discovered in 1942. Although the plate is the main focus, a total of 34 pieces were found in total, ranging from spoons, cups, bowls and ladles. It's also to become known as the Oceanus or Neptune dish, named so from the face of the sea-god right in the centre; the personification of the ocean, with his beard of seaweed and dolphins emerging from his hair. Surround him in the inner circle, you'll see a circle of sea-nymphs riding mythological sea-creatures, a seahorse, a triton, a sea stag and a ketos; a dragon-like monster.
British Museum website; Oceanus/Neptune
The outermost ring is of imagery of the Bacchic thiasos, the dancing music making and drinking revels of the god Bacchus. At 12 o clock on the dish, you can see Bacchus with his panther and Silenus. Going round anti-clockwise to 9 o clock shows the triumph of Bacchus over Hercules. Hercules is shown staggering drunkenly and supported by 2 helpful satyrs. And all the way around to 3 o clock, notice the goat legged god Pan, dancing and brandishing pan-pipes, with other characters doting about of several Maenads, the female devotees of Bacchus, and satyrs all dancing about, and generally looking like they are having a whale of a time.
British Museum website; at the top Bacchus and his panther and the right Pan with the pan-pipes
The hoard was discovered whilst ploughing in January in 1942 by Gordon Butcher, with help from his friend Sydney Ford. Many details of the discovery remain uncertain though. Apparently at first Sydney Ford didn't recognise the objects for what they were, despite being a collector of ancient objects. Ford cleaned the pieces and put them on display at his home, even using some of them as daily utensils, such as the Great Dish on special occasions with his family. He declared the hoard to the authorities in 1946, after a knowledgable friend spotted them at his home, it was then acquired by the British Museum being declared a treasure trove.
The Mildenhall treasure contains pieces that undoubtedly belong to the first rank of Roman art and craftsmanship on an international scale of excellence. Although it was found at a time and in a manner that leave many unanswered questions about the reasons for and date of its concealment, the overall 4th century dating is certain, and the decoration, with its traditional pagan themes just touched with the influence of the new faith Christianity, is a characteristic of that period of change in the Roman Empire. We cannot as yet say for certain where the objects were manufactured, but it seems safe to say that it would have been somewhere in the general Mediterranean region.
It feel's like I've gone a bit history heavy on this post, so I think it call's for a glass of wine ;) so get yourselves down to Marks and Spencers and tell me what you think!
Heard in London