Five stellar New Zealand reds under $20

New Zealand produces some damn fine wines, and it's high time you started drinking them.

Surely by now you've consumed more than your fair share of Australian red wines, right? Plenty of big, fleshy shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, each of which bears the telltale signs of an Aussie sipper: bold flavors, smooth fruit and higher alcohol percentages. But as any Kiwi will tell you, New Zealand's no Australia, in terms of wine or anything else. If you're into light-bodied white wines, then perhaps you've dabbled in a bit of NZ sauvignon blanc -- notoriously so fresh and so clean, they seem to leap right from the glass into your mouth. Red wines from New Zealand? Not so much. But that's changing, especially considering the tiny island nation's snagging of gold medals for both pinot noir and syrah/petit verdot at the recent UK International Wine & Spirit Competition, where NZ beat out competitors from around the globe.

Seems like now's the perfect time, what with the cooler weather and all, to explore a few of these undiscovered gems. Here are five, all priced under $20, to get you started.

Babich Pinot Noir 2008 ($16): Pinot noir is pretty much the no-fail red from this region, so know that up front. And since this house already makes yummy, value-priced chardonnay and sauv blancs, it only makes sense that its pinot is no slouch, either. Four words that should inspire an immediate purchase of this wine: smoky, silky, cherry and spice. "Super" and "elegant" would be two more descriptors. I recently enjoyed this wine at Cellar Wine Bar as a part of its fantastic "Down Under" flight -- and you should do the same.

Martinborough Vineyards "Russian Jack" Pinot Noir 2008 ($20): This is one ripe, stinky, delightful glass of wine. As is the case with many Burgundian-style pinots, use of the term 'barnyard' to describe the Russian Jack would not be out of order. Lest you be slightly put off by a wine offering something other than a fruit-forward bouquet, don't be. You'll be getting a mouthful of dark berry, violet and toasty cocoa flavors right alongside the earthy notes, which will continue to mellow with a little time in the glass.

Oyster Bay Hawkes Bay Merlot 2008 ($12): Merlot is a far lesser-known but incredibly up-and-coming varietal that's starting to gain a following among former doubters of NZ's ability to turn out this Bordeaux native. In fact, merlot (together with cabernet) is now responsible for more than half of the production from the heavily clay-based soils found in the Hawkes Bay region. Like most merlots, Oyster Bay's bottling is a gorgeous, dark blood red color with hints of purple, and tastes of the same dark red fruits: dried cherry, strawberry and even a hint of baked rhubarb. You'd do well to drink this one alone; and by that I mean without food -- not without company.

Coopers Creek Malbec 2007 ($15): You read that right: we are indeed talking about a malbec from New Zealand. Like Bordeaux, NZ offers a maritime growing climate featuring sunshine-filled days and cooler nights -- the ideal weather for malbec-making. Everything you can hope for in a malbec -- mouthful after mouthful of juicy, ripe berry and stone fruit goodness wrapped in a cloak of spice and vanilla-scented oak -- is here. Simply put, it's love in a glass.

Craggy Range 'Te Kahu' Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon ($19): A recent rooftop happy hour at Vita provided the opportunity to drink not one, but two glasses of this supple, gorgeous wine for the low, low price of only $10. Revealing one of the very best expressions of this somewhat-ubiquitous blend that I've had in a long, long time, every sip exposed layers of super-ripe fruit made more seductive by the presence of all kinds of cigar box and nutmeg-spicy aspects. Ready for more good news? Buying the wine at Argonaut means you immediately save 50 percent and get to drink two more glasses.