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Fun Wines for Frugal Times

Finding liquid gold doesn’t mean emptying the wallet


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AS WE EMERGE from unstable economic times, many wine lovers are still interested in switching from the high-priced spread to drinkable but less-prestigious labels. Nature has cooperated; the selection of wines this fall is one of the best in a decade, with excellent vintages, rare finds and winning red wines from California, France, Italy and Portugal.

Starting at the top for the collectors, the 2005 Bordeaux and 2006 Burgundies offer choices at prices ranging from the cost of a tank of gas up to the down payment on a new car. One can track down lesser-known wines in the $40 to $75 range that compare favorably to $500 wines (or an Exxon gift certificate), including some recently discounted 2005 Bordeaux. In California, smaller wineries with unfamiliar names are producing Cabernet Sauvignons that rival the cult wines, at one-fifth the price. Surprise your favorite wine snob at your next dinner (“Never heard of this one,” he says smugly. “Should be interesting.”) and count on a delayed response once the wine is opened (“Wow! Nice find!”).

When you receive the gift of wine, turn it into a tasting experience. Write your benefactor’s name and date received on the label, then put aside in a safe place to share with that person months or even years later (for instance, a classic 2005 Bordeaux wine). You can also launch a perpetual gag; five friends have been passing around a bottle of Cook’s Sparkling Wine for about 20 years (we may even drink it). And I have a 30-year old bottle of Thunderbird I’m waiting to give back on the right occasion.

To enhance any dinner or wine event, think beyond a single bottle; go educational, selecting two wines of different vintages from the same producer, for example. The 2004 and 2005 vintages from Château Lynch Bages, a super fifth growth in Pauillac, show off the style of the château and the differences in the vintages——from light­er in 2004 to classic in 2005. From California, the 2004 vintage was one of the best in a decade for Cabernet Sauvignons, with intense and rich wines. 2005 offered a larger harvest and good, if less intense, wines; 2006 ri­pened late but has a few stars.

To impress the high-rollers, put together a luxury three-pack: Château Latour 2005 Pauillac Bordeaux, $1,899 per 750-milliliter bottle; Colgin 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, IX Estate, Napa Valley, $350; and the Roederer 1996 “Cristal” Brut Champagne, $399.

Mix, match, and get creative. Show up for a dinner party with with the luscious Louis Jadot 2006 Clos Vou­geot ($200), combined with the Black Box 3-liter 2006 Napa Valley Reserve Chardonnay ($30). The former is a perfect match for a filet mignon; the latter has good Chardonnay character and is a match for picnic time with plates of antipasto or charcuterie, cheeses and baguettes.

To put together your own autumn sampler, the following provides a selection of quality red and sparkling wines at a wide range of prices. NV = non-vintage.

Sparkling Wine

Scharffenberger Brut, NV, Mendocino (blend of Pinot Noir and Char­don­nay), $18
Roederer Estate, NV, Brut Rosé, Anderson Valley, $22
Veuve Clicquot, NV, Brut Champagne, $40
Krug 1996 Vintage Brut Champagne, $275

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