Wine Review: 2012 Alice May Pathfinder Sauvignon Blanc

27 07 2014

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

Cali grapes, Calgary soul.  This one sticks with you.

Cali grapes, Calgary soul. This one sticks with you.

Earlier this year I was first introduced to Alice May wines, made by Calgary sommelier Alex Good in collaboration with California stalwart producer Barrel 27, thanks to its Cote-Rotie inspired Crosswinds Syrah, which made me sit up and take notice of this new source of killer value wine with a local heart.  Alice May was (and still is) a label focused on the production of Rhone varietals in southern California’s Santa Barbara County, but this, their inaugural white release, has a different French homeland:  Sauvignon Blanc is found both in white Bordeaux (blended with Semillon and Muscadelle) and in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume in the Loire Valley (where it is a single varietal star).  While this may not have been Good’s initially planned direction for his Pathfinder wine (which will be made of the much more Rhone-y Grenache Blanc and Roussanne as of next year), he got the proverbial offer he couldn’t refuse to take some prime Sauvignon from the highly esteemed Coquelicot Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley and he ran with it.  Coquelicot is a cooler climate site situated right close to the Pacific Ocean almost due west from Los Angeles, biodynamically farmed by a top vineyard manager and churning out powerful yet balanced fruit full of character.  And it shows.

Although it says “Sauvignon Blanc” on the label, the 2012 Pathfinder is actually 90% Sauvignon and 10% Yellow Muscat (a.k.a. Moscato Giallo), the latter of which adds depth of colour and aromatic intrigue to the blend.  Most New World Sauvignon Blancs follow the New Zealand mould of cool fermentation and minimal maturation in stainless steel tanks, which leads to a bright, zippy, thirst-quenching wine with clear refreshment value but maybe a touch of forgettability, particularly since they all track a fairly similar formula and flavour profile.  Certain warmer areas of California like Napa have tried a barrel-fermented style of Sauvignon called “Fume Blanc”, but the oak in these often overwhelms the rest of the wine.  These are usually the only two styles of Sauvignon Blanc that you see on the shelves.  This wine is neither of those styles.  Instead, it is something of a hybrid:  fermented in stainless steel a la New Zealand model but at slightly warmer temperatures to improve texture, then matured in oak, but older, tight-grained French oak to avoid excessive flavour transference.  The wine is then finished back in stainless steel for aging on the lees (the dead yeast cells spent after fermentation, which keep a sense of youthfulness and vitality in the finished wine and also add creaminess to its mouthfeel) before going in bottle.  This is a calculated series of steps for achieving maximum complexity and textural impact, and from the second you see the wine, you know it’s not your standard bottle of SB.

photo-50For a young cooler-climate Sauvignon Blanc, the Pathfinder was a shockingly deep, vivid lemon-gold colour, showing the influence of not only its oak aging (oak barrels leech some of their colour into white wine and darken it slightly) but also the darker hues of the wine’s Muscat minority blending partner, clearly earning its Yellow name.  A punchy nose overlaid barrel-induced aromas of toasted almond, creme brûlée, buttered popcorn and smoke on top of still-vibrant pineapple and lime fruit and more confectionary notes of honeycomb and cinnamon.

Then came the star of the show.  The mouthfeel of this wine was unbelievable.  The warmer fermentation, barrel aging and lees contact all conspired to lend the Pathfinder an astoundingly lush, creamy texture:  full-bodied, silky, smooth and languid, yet still vital and nowhere near tired.  It was unlike any Sauvignon Blanc I’ve ever tried — it could have almost doubled for a Meursault on mouthfeel alone.  Once the astonishment with the physical feel of the wine started to fade, the Sauvignon Blanc core kicked in with a brightness of fruit and cutting acid on the back end of the palate that prevented the Pathfinder from ever feeling heavy.  The flavours were definitely on the riper end of the SB spectrum:  banana, mango, honey, coconut, vanilla, and to steal from the official tech sheet of the wine because the descriptor is so awesome, fuzzy peach slices (best candy ever).  But these plusher notes are balanced off by smoke and biting spice from the oak and almost chalky, rocky flavours on the finish.

Stelvin Rating: 3/10 (Sort of cheating because I've seen this screwcap before - need a burning-boat-embossed stelvin stat.)

Stelvin Rating: 3/10 (Sort of cheating because I’ve seen this screwcap before – need a burning-boat-embossed stelvin stat.)

This is a fantastic example of the magic that can occur when fruit and oak integrate properly in a white wine.  If you don’t think oak aging can ever improve or enhance the flavour of a white, or if on the other hand you think that Sauvignon Blanc is eternally boring, tart and repetitive, come on down.  The official Alice May position is that the Pathfinder is inspired by the Sauvignon Blancs of white Bordeaux, but this wine keeps taking me to white Burgundy instead, to the oak-friendly areas in the southern half of the region like the aforementioned Meursault or Pouilly-Fuisse in the Macon.  Obviously regional and varietal differences keep this from being a perfect comparison, but since it’s one I never thought I’d be making with Sauvignon Blanc, it’s all the more impressive.  This is an ambitious and insightful take on what can be a fairly straightforward varietal, a bottle that should be of huge interest to wine geeks everywhere and a joy to drink for anyone.  If you’re in Calgary, track one down — I know that Vine Arts and Kensington Wine Market have been carrying it recently.

91+ points

$20 to $25 CDN

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