One night several years ago, I overcame my comedy club phobia and found myself contentedly listening to a slacker humorist riff on Los Angeles loser-dom. He noted with irony that his own sad studio apartment was located directly above a poster shop specializing in reproductions of old masters and modernist legends. "Behold my Picasso! Now, what can I fix you on my hot plate?" was a favorite line from the act, which prompted an acquaintance of mine to soulfully confess his dream of leaving his loser days behind and becoming a true urban sophisticate.
My friend was in his late 20s then, and one of the markers of that age, for fledgling urban sophisticates at least, is that you finally want to show up at a friend's holiday soiree with something more impressive than a tap for the keg or a bong made out of a pineapple. And while you may still be broke, you also don't want to arrive with a bottle that's clearly a $6 steal from Safeway. So for you and your kind, I present three reds you probably haven't heard of, all sure to express your growing appreciation for the finer things in life.
Tied for first in this tasting was the 2006 vintage of a delightfully surprising wine called Land of Fire ($6.50), from Argentina. The product of international wine producers Jacques and François Lurton, Bordeaux natives now making wine in five countries, Land of Fire is made of 20 percent Malbec and 80 percent Bonarda — which, after Malbec, is Argentina's second-most plentiful grape. I found this wine's aroma to be elegant but fun — a fruity scent of currants, backed up by a strong spicy flavor of black pepper and cloves. If Argentina weren't so well known for its great bargain reds, you might be able to fool a fancy host or hostess into thinking you'd splurged.
My other favorite was the 2005 Tollo Sangiovese ($7.50). The aroma here was so many things at once — grape, blueberry, orange peel — and the taste, too, evoked velvety fruit. I could see pairing the Tollo with strong stinky cheeses or a rich meat or poultry dish, but it would also be distinctive on its own. Bring it to a local restaurant's no-corkage-fee night for a festive holiday dinner.
Our Token Winemaker's favorite was the Este de Bodegas Alto Almanzora ($9), a nonvintage Spanish red blend. He praised its complexity and soft tannins — but to me there was something in the Este reminiscent of those stolen childhood sips of a parents' wine that made you wonder why grown-ups would choose to drink this beverage. A bit chalky and medicinal — but perhaps it's just one of those acquired tastes of urban sophistication.