Handmade

Last week, everybody in the wine world was talking about the dreadful economic outlook for winemakers in France's venerable Bordeaux region. Too many years of routine viticulture and winemaking, too many decades of taking the magic name "Bordeaux" for granted, and—"suddenly"—many, if not most, producers find themselves without a market for their wine and facing bankruptcy. A few hundred miles to the south and east, the story's different. In the great sweep of coastline bordering the Mediterranean between the Rhône and the Pyrenees, in the ancient wine-growing regions of Provence, Languedoc, and Roussillon, a quiet revolution has been going on. Young winemakers, unable to afford vineyard acreage in Bordeaux or Burgundy or unwilling to wait to inherit their family plots, have been buying cheap land there where vines have grown—and grown pretty much the same way—for going on 2,500 years, and bringing new ideas and techniques to a region known in the past only for its cheap mass-market plonk. With no established canons of quality to aim for, these winemakers have aimed to please only themselves, discovering what their vineyards need and respond to as they go along. The result is an abundance of highly individual wines emphasizing "the taste of the place" where they were grown and made, most of them, since they need to sell on their merits rather than a familiar name, very reasonably priced as well. Two Seattle distributors, Triage Wines and Elliott Bay Distributing, have made something of a specialty of these wines, distributing dozens of items from the list of Hand Picked Selections, a specialist in reasonably priced and distinctive southern French bottles. If you'd like to explore what the region's winemakers are up to, look for items like "The 15," a powerful, cedar-scented rosé from as far southwest as a wine can get without being Spanish ($11), or Chateau de Lancyre's 2002 Pic St. Loup red ($11), produced west of the ancient Roman city of Nîmes. Winemaking in Washington, with only 30 years of history, has a tradition to establish rather than tradition to cast off, but some vintners are already emulating the experimentalists of southern France, and with the same, often startling results. Kay Simon has had so much success with her Chinook rosé (about $16) that we tend to forget it was she who discovered that the sometimes grassy-tasting cabernet franc grape, delicately handled, produces a wine with the luscious color, scent, and flavor of strawberries. At Yellow Hawk, Tim Sampson, instead of joining the cab-merlot-syrah crowd, has made a name for himself with distinctive sangioveses, dry muscat, and lemberger rosé. Your eyebrows may go up into your hairline the first time you sip James Mantone's laser-focused Celilo Vineyard pinot noir, but you have to admit that this hot-country version is as legitimate an expression of the grape as the more familiar, musky cool-climate model. Not that artisanal Washington winemakers have to go off in odd directions to hit the sweet spot. Christophe Baron's Walla Walla syrahs can stand proud beside all but the most extraordinary Rhône counterparts. Bob Lorkowski made his name in the sizzling Columbia Gorge with Italian varieties like nebbiolo and barbera, but he also produces a smashing syrah, good as most on the Hand Picked list, for a smashing $15. As soft yet supple and alive as a kitten coiled in your hand, Lorkowski syrah deserves a brand of its own. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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