Mendoza, Ole! 

Sure, it's $2.99, but can you dance to it?

Born in Buenos Aires in the late 19th century to an Andulusian father and Castilian mother — both professional dancers who happened to be on tour at the time — Antonia Mercé y Luque seemed destined to become the godmother of neoclassical Spanish dance. Beginning her formal training at age four, "La Argentina," as she later became known, first focused on ballet, earning acclaim for her performances at Madrid's Teatro Real. But by her early teens she had found her true passion in the study of theatrical dances native to Spain.

Initially La Argentina's shift to flamenco and jota kept her out of the grand venues that had clamored for her during her ballet career, so by default Spain's flamenco-friendly cafes cantantés became her stage. Smoke-filled, raucous, with musicians and dancers often performing in exchange for food and wine, they seemed an apt metaphor as we sipped Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec from Mendoza, the famed Argentine wine region just an hour north of La Argentina's hometown. Nothing grand or pretentious, deceptively unsophisticated in appearance, simplicity masking a surprising and delightful magnificence.

Wines from Mendoza are often described as earthy, reflecting the region's continental climate and rich soil, and in this respect the 2004 Casaterra Cabernet Sauvignon ($2.99) did not disappoint. We loved its hearty, leathery taste, aroma of violets, and lingering fruity aftertaste — and were surprised by its alcohol content of 13 percent, compared to the 14-plus percent of many Californian Cabs. A balanced mouthful of fruit, our Lovely Guest Taster said. Our Token Winemaker detected notes of raspberry, blackberry, and strawberry. (Note: Beginning with the 2005 vintage, the producers of the Casaterra label have changed its name to Tierra Brisa.)

Our second Mendoza wine, the 2002 Medrano Merlot ($2.99) from Luján Vineyards, brought out the poet in LGT. Spicy, Christmas-y but light./Cherry, berry, strong, long./Like it. Young? was her homage. Our Token Winemaker and I thought this one had a slight scent of barbecued chicken. "Refreshingly not Californian," he added, noting a rich fruit flavor and the same South American earthiness that the Cab possessed. A nice fairly light red, full of flavor.

We had great expectations for our third Mendoza wine, the 2005 Trumpeter Malbec ($9.99) from Rutini Vineyards. Although originally a French grape, Malbec has come into its own in Argentina, producing wines of distinction that are robust and balanced. Alas, what was most distinctive about the Trumpeter was its aroma of rotten vegetables. LGT and I didn't mind the taste — we found it odd yet comforting in its complexity, like a crazy relative. Perhaps handicapped by his professional knowledge of the "big sulfides" dominating here, our Token Winemaker dismissed the Trumpeter as "smoky blackness."


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