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Birichino

The Storytellers: Delicious Wines from Old Vines
Birichino

By their own admission, John Locke and Alex Krause’s aim is simple: to make “delicious wines that give pleasure”. Judging by the splash Birichino’s latest releases created at our US portfolio tasting on Tuesday, we would have to award them three gold stars on that front (that’s out of three, by the way). Yet, to leave it there would not begin to do justice to Birichino and its wines.

Locke and Krause are alumni of the influential Bonny Doon Vineyard, which was then run by eccentric genius Randall Grahm. And while Grahm’s rebellious labelling and provocative marketing could distract from the nature and extent of his achievements, the same cannot be said of our two protagonists. Indeed, if there was one thing Bonny Doon taught Locke and Krause, it was a reverence for California’s deep repository of historic old-vine sites.

Since establishing their label in 2008, Birichino has formed a community with the growers of many of these historic vineyards (which could include vines as far apart as the centurion Mourvèdre bush vines of the Enz Vineyard in San Benito’s Lime Kiln Valley to Lodi’s own-rooted Bechthold Vineyard, believed to be the world’s oldest surviving Cinsault). And it’s no exaggeration to say that without their support, it is likely that some of the less-fashionable varieties they work with—think Carignan, Sémillon and Grenache—may have been grubbed up and replanted with a more profitable crop. 

Evoking the memory of the Barossa vine pull of the 1980s, Krause explains his mission: “We’re just trying to keep alive that little bit of history and tradition of grape growing in California. If we can convince a couple of crusty farmers in Lodi not to rip out their old bush vines and pay them a premium, then hopefully, that is worthwhile for the next generation to enjoy.”

Tasting Birichino’s wines, we’re reminded of an Eric Asimov article in the New York Times: How the Most Delicious Wines Stay True to Themselves. “Some aspire to make the best wines in their region, others, the country or the world,” he wrote. “But for me, the most enlightened approach is simply to try to make the best possible wine from the place where the grapes are grown.” Regardless of the variety, each Birichino wine stands for purity, charm, texture, and, above all, originality. Deliciousness is the happy by-product. “It’s our hope that what you taste in the glass,” says Krause, “is more an expression of a particular site and, to a lesser extent, the variety than how it was made.” Amen.

For more words on Birichino, click here.

The Wines

Birichino Jurassic Park Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2022

Birichino Jurassic Park Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2022

The Jurassic Park Chenin Blanc came about as most great things do in California: over lunch in west Hollywood. Alex and John were enjoying a post-trade event meal with their friend, Angela Osborne. The New Zealand-born owner/winemaker at Tribute to Grace told them about an old Chenin Blanc vineyard near her house in Los Alamos in Santa Ynez Valley. Showcasing their inability to turn down old-vine fruit from well-managed, interesting and mature vineyards, by the end of lunch, the Birichino boys had purchased a parcel of fruit to be collected the following day.

Located about four hours from the winery in Santa Cruz, Jurassic Park is the furthest-flung site Birichino works with. Planted in the late 1970s, the own-rooted vineyard sits at 335 metres, just above Santa Barbara in Santa Ynez Valley. The soils are pure quartz, with beach sand at the top of the slope and chunks of limestone littered throughout. Of all the sites John and Alex work with, Jurassic Park exhibits the most vintage variation, with Chenin styles ranging from lithe and appley through saline and chalky to fully exotic. 2022 keeled towards mineral and savoury, with ocean air and oyster shell at the helm. The fruit was picked in one go; Alex and John do not make passes through the site, so varying degrees of ripeness are captured in the bunch, lending tension and freshness to the sunny, ripe fruit. The fruit was picked in the second week of October and fermented spontaneously in stainless steel. The wine then matured in a mixture of stainless-steel barrels (80%) and neutral French wood (20%).

“Subtle aromas of honey, crisp apple and pleasant honeysuckle meet with wet slate and light wool on the nose of this old-vine bottling. The palate is wrapped in a steely frame, offering delicate apple blossom and pear-flesh flavors, bolstered by a thirst-quenching and vibrant acidity.”
93 points, Matt Kettmann, Wine Enthusiast
Birichino Jurassic Park Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2022
Birichino Yount Mill Sémillon 2021

Birichino Yount Mill Sémillon 2021

Napa Valley. When John Locke and Alex Krause realized they might find enough drinkers to join them in their old-vine quest, one of the first sites they turned to was the Pelissa/Hoxsey Yount Mill Vineyard in Yountville, southern Napa. The Pelissa/Hoxsey family have been farmers here since 1903 and planted their head-trained vines in 1962. Today Kendall Hoxsey farms the soils, and the Semillon is the only organic and dry-farmed parcel. Located at the cooler ‘Paris end’ of the Valley (the French Laundry is nearby), the site is on the fertile valley floor with its alluvial, sandy loam soils.

These Semillon vines are now 60 years old and yield tiny amounts of flavour-packed juice. Birichino picks on the cusp of ripeness to temper the power at low potential alcohols (typically between 11 and 12%). In doing so, the boys feel they can capture the best of both worlds; the varietal’s pithy freshness alongside its dashing honey-drizzled texture. Wild fermented and raised in a mix of steel tank and old barrel. 

The 2021 blends the creamy, textured roundness of stone fruit and green fig with the zesty cut of lemony citrus and a nip of mouth-watering phenolic bite.

The 2021 blends the creamy, textured roundness of stone fruit and green fig with the zesty cut of lemony citrus and a nip of mouth-watering phenolic bite.

“Vines planted in 1962 in Yount Mill Vineyard in Yountville, southern Napa, and picked at low sugar ripeness. Does this remind you of anything? Despite the Hunter-like approach, this Semillon is quite Barossan to me, if you’re into these sorts of comparisons. Or I might be all off as it’s its own, Yount thing. Quite appealing quinine bitterness to start and a lightly creamy, milk powder texture. There’s almond essence, pithiness of a ripe yellow grapefruit and an aniseed tone. A hint of gingery spice lingers in the aftertaste along with a mineral feel of crushed rock. Lovely stuff.”
91 points, Kasia Sobiesiak, The Wine Front
Birichino Yount Mill Sémillon 2021
Birichino Saint Georges Pinot Noir 2022

Birichino Saint Georges Pinot Noir 2022

Saint Georges Pinot Noir hails primarily from the very old, organically managed Besson Vineyard, established in the early 1900s at the southern reaches of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The site is at the base of the mountains and is marginally too low and on the wrong side of the road to be included in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. Instead, the wine is labelled as a homage to George Besson, with whom Birichino has worked for more than 20 years. The site, previously planted to Bordeaux varieties, was grafted over to Pinot Noir in the 1980s with cuttings given to George’s late father by the legendary Josh Jensen of Calera. The roots are old and sit in porous soils of decomposed granite and clay. It’s quite a cool site, heavily influenced by the mountain and the winds and fog passing through the Hecker Pass Gap from Monterey Bay, just 30 kilometres away. Winemaker Alex Krause tells us that Pinot Noir from this site has a “distinctive floral character”. “It’s never super dark; it’s actually quite pretty,” he says. “It’s the heart of this wine.” Seven barrels of Pinot Noir from two sites in the Gabilan Range in the Chalone AVA were added to the blend, bringing a different soil, flavour and texture profile to the mix. The Rodnick and Boer vineyards―from which the Birichino boys make single-site wines―sit at much higher elevation (500 to 600 metres) and the vines are rooted in limestone, dolomite and granite, bringing a “stony resolve” to the blend.

As is the Birichino way, new wood, extended maceration and long maturation were avoided to preserve the fruit's fresh, vivid, savoury nature. The wine fermented spontaneously with 30% stems, layered throughout the ferment after destemming, followed by 10 months in old wood.

“A prevalent sense of chaparral and wild herb marks the nose of this appellation cuvée, which also shows dark cranberry and baked pastry. The palate picks up a gamy quality that gives savory edges to the dark plum and cranberry flavors.”
92 points, Matt Kettmann, Wine Enthusiast
Birichino Saint Georges Pinot Noir 2022
Birichino Scylla 2022

Birichino Scylla 2022

A change in make-up for Scylla this year, with Carignan leading proceedings and Mourvèdre in support. The Carignan (78%) is sourced from two century-old vineyards―Montague and Mule Plane―located within 500 metres of each other in the Mokelumne River area of Lodi. The Montague site―with its big plump berries and bunches―lends a juicy, crunchy and outgoing character to the more dense, dark, savoury and mineral profile of Mule Plane. Both sites give low yields―averaging two tonnes per acre in Mule Plain and four in Montague―and lie on the region's fine, sandy loam soils, though Mule Plain is closer to the river and has a higher rock content. The Mourvèdre (22%) is from the Besson Vineyard in Santa Clara Valley in Santa Cruz, from very low-yielding vines grafted over from 1920s Marsanne using cuttings from Beaucastel. It ‘fills in’ the texture and body of the Carignan, according to winemaker Alex Krause.

The varieties spontaneously ferment separately. The Montague fruit (accounting for about half the blend) was destemmed, while the Mule Plain fruit had whole bunches and stalks layered throughout the ferment. The Mourvèdre component fermented in a small bin. After 10 days with once-a-day punch-downs, the wines were pressed off and blended before maturation in neutral wood until the following summer (about eight months).

Comparing Birichino’s two Rhône-inspired blends―Rokurokubi & Inugami being the other―winemaker Alex Krause describes Scylla as the brighter, juicier, more immediately approachable wine.

Birichino Scylla 2022
Birichino Rokurokubi & Inugami 2022

Birichino Rokurokubi & Inugami 2022

In 2021, Mourvèdre led the charge in Birichino’s Rhône-inspired blend, Rokurokubi & Inugami. This year, Birichino’s source vineyard for Mourvèdre―Little Big Block vineyard in Contra Costa―delivered some of the most expressive fruit of the season. As such, the Birichino boys adjusted the components of the blend to ensure a complete and seamless wine without any one variety hogging the limelight. So, Cinsault from one of Lodi’s centenarian vineyards takes centre stage at 48% in 2022, followed by Mourvèdre at 29% and Grenache at 23%. The Cinsault component is sourced from head-pruned, non-irrigated and organically farmed vines in Lodi, planted in 1886. The Grenache is drawn from vines planted in 1910 in the Besson Vineyard in Santa Clara Valley, while the Mourvèdre (29%) is sourced from Little Big Block, a sandy site planted to old bush vines at the edge of the San Joaquin River in Contra Costa.

The name and label design are a nod to a Bakemono Zukushi handscroll, painted in the Edo period of 18th and 19th century Japan. “It was either this or Run GMC!” hoots John Locke. The Cinsault is personified by the floating head on the label, with the Mourvèdre and Grenache represented by the anchoring wolf. Each batch was vinified separately. The Cinsault and Mourvèdre fermented wild in stainless steel with 10-15% stems, while the Grenache component saw a touch more whole-bunch inclusion at 20%. The wines matured in old wood for eight months before blending and bottling unfined and unfiltered.

Comparing Birichino’s two Rhône-inspired blends―Scylla being the other― winemaker Alex Krause describes Rokurokubi & Inugami as the darker, deeper, more structured wine. 

Birichino Rokurokubi & Inugami 2022
Birichino Saint Georges Zinfandel 2021

Birichino Saint Georges Zinfandel 2021

Alex Krause has the Besson Zinfandel vines to thank for his nickname, “El Carnicero” (the butcher). Many passes are made through the old Zinfandel block each year, pruning out underripe, raisined or less-than-perfect berries and losing up to 80% of the crop in any given year. “It’s a miserable grape”, he tells us, only half-joking. After swearing they would never make a Zinfandel, Alex and John now make three. The first vintage of the Saint Georges Zinfandel was produced in 2013, a year of immaculate growing conditions and fruit quality. The boys succumbed to the charm of the site, the fruit and the man himself, George Besson. “We were duped,” Alex laughs, referring to the false sense of security the plain-sailing debut lulled them into. The Zinfandel vines were, by all accounts, planted by an Italian bootlegger in 1922. Rooted in granite and sandy loams, Besson’s ungrafted Zinfandel benefits from morning and afternoon sun, while the unusually fresh marine-moderated night-time temperatures permit full expression and flavour development without reaching high potential alcohol levels. The yields from these well-established, own-rooted vines are meagre, averaging just one tonne per acre.

To showcase the grape’s fresh, nuanced, silky side, the Birichino boys pick their Zin early, usually between 13 and 13.5% potential alcohol. At the same time, the low-impact winemaking is geared towards balancing the fresh acidity and juicy fruit offered by this unique Santa Cruz vineyard. In 2021―a cool, even year―the fruit reached equilibrium at 13.5% towards the end of October. This was significantly later than the previous year but a full degree lower (2020 was 14.5%). “It’s very similar to our first vintage,” Alex tells us, referring to the year of the immaculate duping, “so perfumed and suave.” Fermented with 10% stems layered throughout after destemming, the wine matures for nine months in neutral wood before being bottled unfiltered. A return to the classic Birichino style, the 2021 Saint Georges Zinfandel is a million miles away from the brawny, hulk-like examples of big-brand Zinfandel.

Birichino Saint Georges Zinfandel 2021
Birichino Boer Pinot Noir 2017 (1500ml)

Birichino Boer Pinot Noir 2017 (1500ml)

Chalone. Volcanism and tectonic activity define Chalone and the Pinnacles National Park, immediately below which lies the exceptionally situated Boer Vineyard. First planted by Dick Woodward to Cabernet in 1969 and celebrated as the ‘A-Frame’ vineyard, the vines on these steep slopes were grafted several decades ago to several selections of Pinot Noir. It is now owned and farmed by Richard Boer. Chalk from an ancient, uplifted seabed and decomposing granite comprise this highly unusual and prized terroir. There is sufficient maritime influence to moderate daytime temperatures and ensure fruit ripens evenly.

“Brilliant garnet. A powerfully scented bouquet evokes ripe red berries, cherry pit and candied flowers. A spicy note builds as the wine opens up. Densely packed black raspberry and bitter cherry flavors take a sweeter turn and become more plush through the mid-palate. Shows gentle grip and spicy lift on a very long, subtly chewy finish that’s framed by dusty, well-knit tannins.”
92 points, Josh Raynolds, Vinous
Birichino Boer Pinot Noir 2017 (1500ml)
Birichino Lilo Pinot Noir 2018 (1500ml)

Birichino Lilo Pinot Noir 2018 (1500ml)

Santa Cruz. On a south-facing slope perched at 300m elevation in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Lilo Vineyard opens to an unobstructed view to the South over Monterey Bay. Planted a dozen years ago on a complex mix of schist, shale and sandstone soils, the steep slope and yields can be stunningly low. Just above the fog line, this is viticulture on the edge: a marginal site fully exposed to late frosts at bud break and spring rains that can affect flowering, along with every other torment the weather coming off the Pacific can bring.

“Dried strawberry, light sage, scorched orange, anise and rusty earth aromas show on the nose of this single vineyard expression. The palate’s dark, earthy fruit flavors are lifted by herbal edges of bay leaf and sage oil.”
93 points, Matt Kettmann, Wine Enthusiast
“Limpid red. Spice-accented red fruit and floral qualities on the perfumed nose, along with hints of botanical herbs and smoky minerals. Juicy and penetrating on the palate, offering gently sweet strawberry and cherry flavors and a refreshingly bitter touch of blood orange. Finishes long and silky, with well-judged tannins framing lingering red fruit notes.”
92 points, Josh Raynolds, Vinous
Birichino Lilo Pinot Noir 2018 (1500ml)

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