For a country with a small population like New Zealand, an extra quarter of a million visitors coming over for the rugby world cup should be a major boost for the flagging economy. New Zealand like the rest of us is struggling to pull itself out of this global recession. I was shocked to see they have all the same problems over there that we have over here – immigration issues, unemployment, take home alcohol sales killing the pub trade (and hence the heart of the rural communities), the supermarkets gaining a dominant foothold, (although thankfully not the demon Tescos), high taxes, high cost of living etc etc.

Central Otago

Central Otago - the hottest vineyard in NZ


So in theory a great deal of rugby fans spending their foreign money is a fantastic boost, as it will inject a great deal into the economy across both islands, although Christchurch itself is an exception of course, as rebuilding hasn’t even begun yet. Unfortunately there are parts of the city still without electricity and running water, a full year after the big earthquake, although a lot of the damage was actually done in a 2nd one in February which really hampered any rebuilding plans.

Unfortunately the rugby world cup organisers went to town on a load of gimmicks for the tourists like an exhibition inside a giant rugby ball on Auckland Quay which is just plain tacky, and tries desperately to part the tourists from their cash for all kinds of tatt. The overspend on these gimmicks was massive and there is speculation the cost will far outway any benefit.

But what about the longer term? Surely all these visitors touring, visiting the major wine regions, will experience the quality and diversity of New Zealand wines, and realise they also make world class reds these days – and their dry Reislings, some like Olssens in Cromwell, are just spectacular. Everybody knows the Kiwis make some of the best Chardonnays in the world, and of course they’re famous for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Central Otago Pinot Noir, but there are new wines emerging too. Some excellent Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer for example, but the biggest white sensation over there at the moment is Viognier which is absolutely booming.

For reds, Hawke’s Bay is producing top class Syrah, but also superb Bordeaux blends as Cabernet Franc and Malbec are also thriving alongside the already recognised Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Look out for Mills Reef wines over here – they’ve been accredited with a host of awards for their reds including New Zealand’s number one Cabernet Sauvignon and number two Syrah, with some really high marks from Bob Campbell. There are also other good unusual reds emerging from unexpected places – I had a Central Otago blend which was Pinotage based which was fantastic!

But sadly, as in any developed country, the good work of a quality boutique winery can be quickly undone by the global brands. For example Brancott Estate (owned by Montana) has sponsored the rugby world cup. Billboards and posters of their wines are everywhere, and unfortunately the wine itself is widely available too. They’re marketing it as THE premium New Zealand wine. Truth is it’s not bad, but it’s not good either, it’s just a run of the mill everyday wine. If visitors leave believing this is the best NZ wine on offer they certainly won’t be buying any when they return to their native countries. Also Mount Difficulty has a good reputation but they’ve also flooded their entry level Pinot Noir into a host of restaurants and bars. Again it’s not terrible, but again it’s not good, but as they already have a reputation visitors may think it’s amongst the better NZ wines, which it certainly isn’t! Nip to the wineries next door like Dessert Heart and Olssens and the wines are a world apart on quality.

Perhaps the worst culprit though is Villa Maria, who I believe are NZ’s most awarded winery, although produce many of the country’s most mediocre wines. How can this be? Well, with a hefty budget and state of the art technology they employ top winemakers to produce tiny quantities of the very best wines then enter them for competitions to win the medals. But can you actually buy any of these wines? – NO. You have to buy their bog standard, run of the mill, mass produced stuff. No doubt Villa Maria believe they are being very clever. I’ve no doubt it certainly helps them market their wines globally in great volumes, but it won’t do the New Zealand wine industry any favours.

Julicher's boutique winery - ageing Pinot Noir

Julicher's boutique winery - ageing Pinot Noir

But there is still hope for something good to come out of this for New Zealand. Most visitors will be spending several weeks over there, and will no doubt tour the different areas and visit many different wineries. If they stay away from the prepaid pre-arranged tours to the corporate wineries, there are plenty of small privately owned ones producing some excellent distinctive wines with character. If you travel Highway 50 on the outskirts of Napier you will pass a dozen wineries producing reasonable wines, but venture off the beaten track a little way and you will discover some fantastic ones like Moana Park at Puketapu. Perhaps the biggest surprise though is Martinborough, which is now producing some of New Zealand’s very best wines. If you want the best Pinot Noir in New Zealand keep an eye on this region. There are new wineries here which have sprung up in the last 10 years and are producing wines to rival any in the country, like Julicher – watch out for this one!