Five Best Reds Under $10

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It's party time. And with all the holiday gatherings coming up, it's fair to say there's going to be a lot of good food.

Wine, as it's often said, goes well with food -- so you're probably going to have to buy some soon.

It's all part of the fun: dressing up, dinner parties and of course dragging yourself to the local wine shop.

This time, as your mind starts to go blank in the middle of the Bordeaux aisle, take along this trusty little list to help you get your bearings.

The good news is that there are a lot of great red wines to choose from. And by some incredible twist of fate, if you believe the latest studies, chemical properties in red wine can preserve your youth and extend your wonderful life.

It also becomes clear, after you try several bottles -- and consequently, pile more years onto your life span -- that there is an abundance of good affordable reds.

And unlike our past hunt for the great cheap whites which ventured well outside the common categories, a successful red search can stay well within the famous wine regions of the world.

Most of the classic red producers are represented, with the notable exception of France. No effrontery intended, but while the French lead the league in top-tier wines, it's not the place to look for value-hunting.

2004 Campos Reales Tempranillo (La Mancha, Spain), $8

This is the red from La Mancha.

Only two years old, this Spanish red has a very vigorous, youthful flavor. The first sip comes on like a big, berry-packed wave followed by a tart and sturdy tannic finish. Some tasters may find it a bit overpowering at first, but with a little air time (or breathing), it mellows to a well-balanced dinner wine. What stood out most is how the wine steadily improved over the course of a meal -- and it was even better the next day.

This quickly receding harshness is a clear sign that the wine is young and could use a little more time in the bottle to better let the flavors integrate. But with a little patience, some oxidization and an appreciation for a wild-spirited wine, this Tempranillo delivers a big payoff.

The high-impact flavors are an excellent match with a boldy flavored dish, such as chicken Marsala.

2004 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, Villa Paradiso (Abruzzo, Italy), $9

People from Abruzzo say it is one of the most beautiful and underappreciated parts of Italy. One thing is certain -- the Montepulciano made there is fruitful and rich, a suitable rival to the more famous wines of Italy's celebrated Tuscany region to the north.

The wine is a dark pomegranate color with a soft plum flavor. Unlike the Spanish Tempranillo, which takes time to reveal its deep character, this Montepulciano arrives fully formed. All the flavor is right up front, bright and easy to appreciate with a clean, crisp finish. Comparisons to Tuscany's popular Chiantis are understandable; there's a common intent by the winemakers to create a light, tasty everyday wine.

You may never get to Abruzzo, but you can certainly appreciate the beauty of its artful wines.

The Montepulciano stands up well to casual fare -- grilled hamburgers and hot dogs. And don't be surprised if it is a perfect match with shrimp scampi or buffalo wings, for that matter.

2003 Ca del Solo Big House Red (Bonny Doon, Calif.), $9

Big House Red often lands on lists like this, and for good reason. The reliably rewarding blend of grapes that includes cabernet sauvignon, carignan, sangiovese and barbara manages to meld a tasty and affordable melange.

The color is a deep red with purple highlights; the flavors are big and open. There is a solid balance between fruit sweetness and tartness, with no distracting flaws or eccentricities. Critics might complain that when conflicting varietal flavors are thrown together, the unique characteristics of each will be neutralized. But fans will probably agree that the sum of all these traits has a track record of creating a perennial winner.

(Although this may not continue to be the case. Bonny Doon sold the Big House Red brand to the closely held San Francisco wine giant Wine Group in August.)

Big House Red, which is inspired by the famously unpretentious red blend Cote du Rhone, is simply good wine at a good price.

Fittingly, it's a great companion to glazed five-spice chicken.

2005 Gumdale Shiraz (Australia), $9

The shiraz grape, sometimes called syrah, is the principal red grape of the Rhone region of France. It is one of the main components of the famous Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the highly regarded Gigondas wines from that region.

Arguably no one has had more success with Shiraz outside France than the Australians. The Aussie winemakers prefer a style that flaunts the Shiraz's rich fruit and characteristically peppery flavors. Sometimes, as with a few Australian Chardonnays, the flavors go beyond charm and toward overripe.

But Gumdale's Shiraz hits the mark. The deep inky color and the big luscious fruit flavors of the grape are evident. Pleasant cherry and prune tones abound. The signature Shiraz spice follows, in this case with a hint of cinnamon.

People rightly pair Shiraz with meat such as lamb, duck and venison. The mix of forward fruit and subtle spice plays well with the gamy meats. One outstanding match is with Boston-style marinated steak tips.

2004 Camelot Pinot Noir (central California), $7

The 2003 Camelot Pinot is surprisingly tasty and, at $7, a no-brainer, get-a-case-for-the-cellar kind of wine. But it was a late discovery of mine, and by the next visit to the store, the 2003 was gone, restocked with 2004. Regrettable timing? Not really -- the 2004 nails it again.

Snobs will want to steer clear of this Kendall Jackson subsidiary that aims to make "lush, fruit-driven wine." That's code for a fruity and crowd-pleasing. But once you get past all the apprehensions about big companies and the threats to noble grape authenticity, you find a very enjoyable wine.

Pinot noir is a notoriously fussy grape. Apparently only the finest elements working in unison, such as ideal terrior (soil) and centuries of winemaking expertise can coax pinor noir to realize its full potential. Some of the most heralded wines in the world, such as Burgundy's Gevrey-Chambertin, are pinots. So Camelot's bargain-basement version of the peoples' pinot almost adds a bit more satisfaction to drinking.

The wine has a light, almost strawberry, taste, plenty of tartness and a touch of bitterness to round out the overall flavor. Unlike bad, cheap wine that clangs on just one note, the Camelot Pinot actually unfolds in a number of directions.

The classic combo of Pinot and salmon, or even striped bass, works beautifully.

For whatever reasons -- an implied mystique, the crushing and aging with its stems and skins, or maybe the oak fermentation -- reds soak up a lot of flavor and generally acquire a bit more character than paler wines.

This is all to say that with reds, you get a lot of wine for your money. These five standouts should contribute to the season's festivities and if nothing else, help keep you hearty till you're 107.

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