Best wines for under $20

Decades ago, the late Hunter Valley winemaker Murray Tyrrell wrote a small book – The Little Red Wine Bluffer's Guide – for wine drinkers who wanted to pretend to be wine savvy.

He encouraged normally sane people to mouth phrases, the kind presumably heard often at wine tastings, in the hope that all within earshot would be bathed in vinous wisdom, sentiments such as: "I thought the palate finished a little short, didn't you?"

My personal favourite is: "You don't suppose they've used any of those new aromatic estery yeasts when making this wine?" I've been waiting decades to use that one.

For what it's worth, using words you're not sure about isn't the best way to look good. Far better to buy a smart bottle of well-made wine that sings in the glass, tastes great (even the most untrained eye can enjoy something that tastes good as opposed to stonkingly bad) and better still, has a bit of a story you can share.

It's a great way to start a wine conversation. Talking about wine for the sake of it is of little use unless there is a glass in hand and it is a shared experience.

Here are our top 10, under $20 bottles to help you be a successful wine bluffer.

On a tight budget

1. Hesketh Regional Clare Valley Selection 2014 Riesling ($18)

With winemaker Phil Lehmann at the winemaking helm, Hesketh goes from strength to strength. He's a natural when it comes to riesling and what a beaut he delivers here from the Clare Valley from an outstanding year. Masterful acid-fruit balance on display, such zip and bounce and tasty lemon-grapefruit flavour. Back story: Phil Lehmann is the son of the late, legendary Barossa Valley maker, Peter Lehmann.

2. Dal Zotto Wines 2015 Pinot Grigio ($19)

Good pinot grigio is crisp, a little lemony tart, apples, a touch of pear (fruit and skin for some complexity) and on the leaner side for good measure. The Dal Zotto family know the style well (patriarch Otto is from the Veneto) and understand that just-hatched freshness that is at the heart of the grape.

3. Thomas Wines 2015 Two of a Kind Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc $20

There's a Hunter telltale give-away to this wine, it's there in the small print on the back label: 11.5 per cent alcohol. Made in the classic Hunter semillon style with that just-turned-ripe tautness and high-ish acidity, it's the kind of wine that riesling drinkers will jump at. Semillon takes the lead with crunchy green apple, lemon sherbet, while sav blanc provides that herby, lantana extract.

4. Calabria Private Bin 2015 Pinot Bianco ($15)

What a little beauty. Pinot bianco doesn't have much of a profile in Australia but, based on the quality of this wine made in the Calabria family's "vino da casa," it deserves drinkers' attention. The softness, the generous textural mouthfeel is a huge part of its charm, that and an unpretentious personality built around the scent and taste of ripe tropical fruits and some bright acidity.

5. Pitchfork 2015 Margaret River Chardonnay ($16)

Whoa! A $16 Margaret River chardonnay doesn't drop in from the west every day, but Pitchfork, the second label for Hay Shed Hill Wines, does a fine job delivering the region's emblematic white at a budget price. Don't expect an overly expansive, generous white. This wine is more of your uncomplicated, fresh grapey-fruited-style pear. A little racy, too, which is nice.

6. Mr Mick 2015 Novo Sangiovese by Tim Adams ($17)

Plush, yes, that's the word here, a silkiness or the feel of velvet on the tongue. Mr Mick brings forth a youthful, cherry-bright, spiced infused plushness to the Italian grape that is truly moreish. Back story: Mr Mick is an homage to the late, great Leasingham winemaker, Mick Knappstein.

7. Wine x Sam The Victorian Strathbogie Ranges 2013 Shiraz ($20)

The cool-climate credentials of the Strathbogies are on display in this elegant wine. At its heart is a lively pastille-like sweet berry scent and flavour. Winemaker Sam Plunkett, (ex-Plunkett Fowles, Plunkett Wines) is now solo and with wife, Bronwyn Dunwoodie, is making some fab wines such as The Victorian, featuring restrained elegance.

8. Longhop 2013 Mount Lofty Ranges Old Vine Grenache ($18)

This is grenache but maybe not as you know it. There's the weight of the wine in the mouth, it fairly bounces, then there's the prettiness, the floral aromas, chocolate, the savouriness. Longhop is made by Old Plains from 50-year-old vines and they've certainly gone for some involved winemaking for a $18 wine. A complex wine under $20 is a bit of a revelation.

9. Taylors 2014 Clare Valley Shiraz ($19)

Extraordinary value here in a wine that beat wines far loftier in reputation – and price – to win this year's Great Australian Shiraz Challenge. While dense and full-bodied, it's the fruit that intrigues: cherry/raspberry/plum liqueur, choc-vanilla. And so smooth and textural.

(Disclosure: I was a judge at the 2015 GASC)

10. d'Arry's Original 2013 McLaren Vale Shiraz Grenache ($18)

The very model of a classic Aussie red wine, d'Arry's Original is also a well-priced classic at that. It's everything we expect from a sunny clime: the boldness of black fruits, an accompaniment of intriguing spice, a warm, comforting presence that never tends towards the mawkish. The tannin line gives the wine purpose and strength.

Posher plonk: budget be damned

1. Lark Hill 2015 Gruner Veltliner ($45)

Slowly we see Aussie winemakers taking to gruner, which must come as good news to the Carpenter family at Lark Hill who pioneered the Austrian grape in this country. What aromatics they have here, quite delightful especially when not chilled too hard. Pear skin, spice, apple blossom, citrus scents give way to a textural, citrus-fuelled palate.

2. Foxeys Hangout 2014 Chardonnay ($35)

The Lee brothers certainly know what to do when presented with excellent vintage conditions on the Mornington Peninsula: they go the full monty. Quite a number of winemaking techniques (including somewhat suggestively, "rougher handling") have been brought to this sunny but also complex wine, all of them good: sweet grapefruit, bright citrus (with peel), grilled nectarine, pear skin, texture and rolling, cleansing acidity.

3. Circe 2013 Pinot Noir ($40)

Talented people never seem entirely happy doing just one job really well, they need a challenge. For Dan Buckle, sparkling maker at Domaine Chandon, that means a project with a good mate involving pinot noir on the Mornington Peninsula, where they both grew up. It's pinot with heart, so pretty and alluring to start – cherry pip, cranberry-bite, powdery tannins – and with depth, the kind to mull over.

4. Murdoch Hill 2015 Sulky Rouge ($35)

Cool, young winemaker dude returns to the family vineyard and shakes things up a bit. That's basically the story behind this plush, energised, red-and-blue-fruited, exuberant yet supple, youngster. The blend of shiraz (syrah, as the winemaker prefers), merlot and pinot meunier works well, whole bunched ferment adding structure, wild-yeast fermentation bringing savouriness.

5. Ros Ritchie 2013 Nebbiolo ($28)

The talented Ros Ritchie turns her hand to nebbiolo and nails it from the telltale brick red colour to the red-rose florals, violets, blood plums, licorice scent and sweet earthy savouriness on the tongue. And that well-known intractable force of nebbiolo acidity remains a constant if not surprisingly subtle back note. Back story: Ritchie is a former winemaker at Delatite Wines.