Wine Review: 2011 Alice May Crosswinds Syrah

23 02 2014
Calgary-born, Cali-made.  YYC pride rise up!

Calgary-born, Cali-made. YYC pride rise up!

I was at the always-amazing Alloy Restaurant with my wife a few weeks ago, celebrating a rare night away from young children and talking to sommelier Alex Good about Riesling (because I basically talk to everybody about Riesling).  Suddenly he said:  “Hang on.  I have something for you to try.”  He returned with a glass of deeply coloured, powerfully aromatic, eminently interesting red.  “What is it?”  “It’s a Syrah/Viognier co-ferment from Santa Ynez Valley in California.  Cote-Rotie style.”  “Who’s the producer?”  “Well, me.”  It turns out that Good (who has since left Alloy to become a partner and sommelier at the equally excellent downtownfood), in his limited time away from the restaurant biz, had partnered with Cali winery Barrel 27 and its winemaker McPrice “Mac” Myers to create a new label geared toward artisanal, small-run, Rhone-influenced wine.  The 2011 Crosswinds Syrah is the inaugural effort of this collaboration, and although the grapes are all from California, the label name is a clear nod to the venture’s northern soul:  the Alice May is the name of the ship that became the title character’s funeral pyre in the classic Canadian poem The Cremation of Sam McGee.  Only 100 cases of the Crosswinds were made, almost all of which came to Alberta and most of which are now gone.  Syrah is my second vinous love after Riesling, and homegrown efforts like this are such rare finds in the Calgary wine world; both the wine and the story were so intriguing that I set out to find a bottle as soon as our meal was over.  I’ve gone back to find more multiple times since then.

The Santa Ynez Valley is part of the Santa Barbera region in southern California, just slightly north of LA.  Despite being far south of Napa and Sonoma, Santa Ynez is known for being quite a bit cooler due to its immediate proximity both to the coast and to an east-west mountain range that funnels cold ocean air right across the Valley.  Some of my favourite red regions in the world (Washington State among them) feature large diurnal temperature differences as a key growing feature, which is a fancy way of saying that it gets way colder at night than it is during the day.  The daytime heat helps encourage ripe fruit and powerful flavour; the nighttime cool preserves precious freshness and acidity and helps ensure full phenolic ripeness (allowing the other flavours/elements of the grape to catch up to its sugars in the ripening cycle).  It’s a virtuous circle.  Santa Ynez is a diurnal temperature shift paradise, featuring temperature swings from day to night that can reach up to 80 degrees F (25 degrees C).  You’d better believe that interesting wine can come from such climatic conditions.

Co-fermentation benefits, Exhibit A:  can you tell by looking that this wine is almost 10% white?

Co-fermentation benefits, Exhibit A: can you tell this wine is almost 10% white?

Despite being labelled as a varietal Syrah, the Crosswinds is actually a blend featuring 7% Viognier, a classic red-white marriage made famous by France’s Cote-Rotie region.  The grapes were co-fermented, which is a departure from run-of-the-mill blending practice.  Instead of vinifying each of the varietals separately and then mixing the resulting wines together after the fact, Good and Myers crushed and fermented the Syrah and Viognier grapes together in a single batch.  The benefits of co-fermentation are numerous:  you end up with a whole that is different from and greater than the sum of its parts, with improved texture, better integration of flavours and deeper colour.  The latter point is particularly important when you’re blending white grapes into red, as the resulting wine doesn’t end up looking pink and diluted.  With Syrah/Viognier blends in particular, a co-ferment leads to improved aromatic complexity and really lets Viognier’s heady scent penetrate and elevate the entire blend.  Co-fermentation has one major downside, which is that there’s no trial-and-error, mix-it-till-you-like-it process as there is with normal blending.  If the wine doesn’t turn out quite right, you’re stuck with it, giving the winemaker much less control over the final outcome, although that outcome is arguably also less contrived.  When I talked to Good about the Alice May, he said he was absolutely adamant from the start that it be a co-ferment, and the resulting wine certainly is built to let its Viognier minority shine.

Stelvin Rating:  3/10 (Looks like Barrel 27 standard issue…maybe Alice May gets its own screwcaps next vintage?)

Stelvin Rating: 3/10 (Looks like Barrel 27 standard issue…maybe Alice May gets its own screwcaps next vintage?)

If you don’t think a 7% blending component can really impact the overall flavour of a wine, this bottle will emphatically convince you otherwise:  the Viognier turns in a character performance worthy of a Best Supporting Actor nom and steers the ship from start to finish.  One of the strengths of the co-fermentation process are immediately evident on first pour, as the wine is a deep, vivid purple colour that doesn’t showcase any fading or weakness.  My tasting notes actually read “Holy Viognier on the nose”:  lifted candied/floral aromatics propel themselves out of the glass, like glazed edible flowers on a wedding cake.  This confectionary perfume seamlessly intertwines with Syrah’s powerful raspberry and grape fruit and steers the wine clear of the funkier, meatier notes sometimes found in the grape.  Honey, cinnamon, smoke and a slight chalkiness all linger in the background.  The Alice May is deft and refined on the palate, with a lightness on its feet that belies its 15.2% alcohol level.  “Elegant” is the word I keep coming back to on each sip; almost white-like in texture, creamy without being heavy, with silky tannin and subtle but ever-present acidity, this is a feminine, aristocratic take on Syrah that is entirely made possible by its partnership with Viognier.  The white grape adds a streak of citrus/tangerine flavour and hints of earl grey tea/bergamot and cardamom to Syrah’s bold blackberry fruit and baking spice, making sure the wine never bogs down, guiding it to a long, sweet-tinged finish.  It is unlike any other Cali Syrah I have had, because it is simultaneously something different and something more.

At $28 or so retail, this bottle punches well above its price point, offering up Cote-Rotie elegance energized with New World fruit and potency.  As mentioned above, the 2011 Syrah is almost sold out across the city, but you can try to track down the remaining stock at Highlander Wine & Spirits, Brittania Wine or The Cellar, or find it on the list at Alloy or Charcut.  I am told that the 2012 vintage will be released shortly, where the Crosswinds will be joined by a new Alice May GSM (Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre) blend that I’m dying to get my hands on — if Syrah is my #2 grape, Mourvedre and Grenache may be #3 and #4.  Here’s hoping that the good ship Alice May is a long and successful venture for Alex Good, and that more wines with local origins continue to make themselves known in the Calgary market.

90 points

$25 to $30 CDN

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