Wine Country Cruising

Wine Country Cruising

For centuries, the easiest way to move heavy wine casks around Europe was by boat—it is no coincidence that many of the continent’s wine regions are readily accessible by sea, river or canal. That same network of trade routes gives present-day travelers an opportunity to explore wine country at a 19th-century pace, away from the rush of the autoroute or the bustle of the local train stations. It’s an escape of sorts, the kind of vacation where you kick back and let someone else handle the details.

There may be a more civilized way to enjoy the wine and food of Europe than spending a week aboard a small floating hotel, but it’s difficult to imagine one.

“We specialize in canal and river cruises in all major regions of France—Burgundy, Bordeaux, Midi, Provence, Loire and Alsace, where over 40 hotel barges provide an intimately unique way to discover the splendid and historic countryside,” says Jean-Francois Dabrowski of France Cruises, Inc., the agency that arranged my tour. Although it’s possible to search out barge hotels and book them directly, cruise specialists can help you find the right one.
Here is a day-by-day account of my September trip, which took me along the Canal du Midi in France’s Languedoc.

Day 1: Meeting the Crew

Yesterday, I flew into Toulouse from the United States, then caught the TGV (France’s high-speed rail) to Carcassonne, the famous walled citadel that seven centuries ago was a strong hold for the Cathar religion. This afternoon, I meet up with my boatmates—John and Marilynn from New York City—at our rendezvous in front of the Hôtel Donjon.

Soon, our barge captain, Uli Weber, has us packed into his van for the quick transfer to the Caroline, our home for the next week. Short and bespectacled with wavy hair and a mustache, the German-born Uli steers the van through the narrow streets to the boat, telling us that for the past two weeks the Caroline has hosted a single family from Australia. Groups often rent all three guest rooms for private voyages, but frequently there are rooms to book individually.

As we board the Caroline at its mooring beside the train station, we are greeted by Ute, Uli’s cheerful wife. Most barge hotels offer either half-board or all-inclusive fare, so Ute serves as chef as well as first mate.

We enjoy a glass of sparkling wine from Limoux, one of several Languedoc appellations in the region, while Uli shows us the boat.

It was built in Holland in 1928, he says, to transport goods between the islands of the North Sea and the mainland. The Caroline is 85 feet long, with a three-cylinder diesel engine that propels the craft at speeds rarely exceeding three miles an hour. It is handsomely trimmed in red, black and white, and its large deck holds tables and chairs, numerous flower pots, a fish pool, two skylights for below and plenty of room for bicycles and Uli’s motor scooter, which he uses to retrieve the van at day’s end or whenever we go visiting wineries, markets or scenic places.

Below deck are three comfortable bedrooms with individual bathrooms, private quarters for Uli and Ute, a kitchen and a lounge/dining room, where Ute has prepared our welcoming meal.

Uli pours us a dry Muscat from Coteaux d’Ensérune, and later, a red blend from the village of Puisserguier to match Ute’s gourmet fare—clear tomato soup with prawns, rare duck breast with Riesling risotto and an excellent cheese plate.

Boats do not travel at night on the canal—the locks close at 7 pm—so the Caroline is perfectly still as I fall asleep.

Day 2: Stuck in Traffic

Standing behind the wheel in the early morning sun, peering through his binoculars at our first lock 100 yards away, Uli is upset. Dozens of cabin cruisers and another hotel barge, the Alouette, are docked along the narrow waterway.

We have had our continental breakfast, our engine is puttering, but the lock shows no sign of activity.

“I told the man at the lock that we wanted to be first through, but he is late,” Uli sighs, explaining the difficulty in maneuvering in front of closed locks without hitting the smaller cabin cruisers, which he dismissively calls “Tupperware boats.” Barges get first dibs at locks, he explains, and also have canal right of way, often to the chagrin of the Tupperware crews.

Soon, there is a wave from the lockmaster, who greets us canalside holding the small, portable console that electronically opens and closes his lock. And there will be lots of locks—about 16 to pass through during our five days between Carcassonne and docking near Capestang, a distance of about 50 miles. This lock is a simple one, but others raise and lower boats in as many as three stages.

“Can I join you?” one touring bicyclist yells amid the watching crowd as we pass out of the lock.

For the next few hours, we travel through small villages and rural countryside, occasionally passing other boats on the two-vessel-wide waterway. The canal, built to connect the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, was finished in 1681 as a crucial commercial link, but since 1970 or so, it has mainly serviced pleasure boats.

Pâté en croûte with salad and Minervois wine.Between our second and third locks, I decide to walk the three-plus miles along the canal path, where I meet up with other walkers and bikers. I keep a pleasant but steady pace, the same speed as the Caroline. That afternoon, we take the first of our daily side trips, this one to Château Villerambert- Moureau in Minervois to tour, taste and buy a couple of bottles before returning “home.”

Day 3: A Trip to the Market

I go for a morning walk in the little town of Marseillette as vignerons drive grape-laden tractors to wineries in the town.Life on and off the Caroline is casual, so my wardrobe is simple—jeans, slacks, walking shorts, casual shirts, walking shoes, light jacket, sweater and rain gear. The latter, fortunately, is unnecessary. Sunscreen, a cap and sunglasses are musts.

Today’s off-board excursion is a produce-buying trip to the sprawling marketplace at Olonzac. We help Uli shop for sausages, fresh oysters, lots of tomatoes and carefully selected local cheeses, ingredients from which Ute will prepare an on-deck picnic as we wait for the lockmaster to return from his own midday meal.

As our dining plan is half-board, that evening we go our own ways, searching for the best restaurants in the little town of Homps.

Day 4: In the Heart of Wine Country

Two cats serenade me before dawn outside my open window.

By now, we are in the heart of wine country, vineyards enveloping both sides of the canal as we glide by. Part of the delight of our trip is the passage through small villages—today they are Argens, Roubia and Paraza— where people sitting in outdoor cafés that front the waterway wave and smile.

At Le Somail, we dock early and charge off in the van to Château de Combebelle, a winery on a hillside in St. Chinian, then stop at a rural farm to see goat cheese and yogurt being made. Back in town, Marilynn, John and I rummage through the Librarie Ancienne, a huge used bookstore.

Before dinner, Uli brings out a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet from the Coteaux du Languedoc to toast the end of the day, and we feed dinner scraps to the ever-present mallards squawking alongside.

Day 5: A Restaurant Discovery

Contrasting with the relaxed pace of much of this trip, this day is a whirlwind of activity. We explore the Roman ruins at Oppidum d’Ensérune, overlooking Montady’s ancient pie-shaped fields, then have a delightful lunch at Narbonne’s indoor market before dropping off John and Marilynn in Béziers for their train to Paris tomorrow. After we tie up for the evening, I visit a nearby hillside vineyard. Harvest is in full swing and the smell of grape must permeates the air. I then grab a quick snooze before dinner—a very memorable dinner at L’Auberge de la Croisade, the kind of country restaurant that foodies and wine drinkers love to stumble across.

Just north of Narbonne in the little village of Cruzy, it was my good fortune to discover it on this beautiful evening, my attention drawn by the group of locals waiting for it to open. I join them on its tree-lined terrace.

Ça va?” calls out Bruno Plana, the restaurant’s manager, as he flings open the doors.

Once inside, I admire the open, modern-yet- classic décor, and soon I am feasting on country pâté en croûte with salad, a salmon strip filet in a light cream sauce with fleur de sel and a small cheese plate. I wash it all down with a bottle of Château Gibalaux-Bonnet Cuvée Prieuré, produced just down the road in Minervois.

After a satisfying double espresso, I walk through the darkening evening to the dimly lighted Caroline, which awaits me 100 yards upstream, tethered for the night to plane trees along the Canal du Midi. On deck, I enjoy a Cognac and a bit of conversation with Uli, then head downstairs to my berth.

Day 6: A Fitting Finale

It’s the last day on board, and views of the valley are spectacular. We are on high ground, and the canal switches back and forth as it slowly snakes down the hillside. At Capestang, there are several dozen boats of all sizes lining the canal, some permanent houseboats. Capestang also has the smallest, lowest bridge crossing the waterway, which we squeeze through—barely.

“There was a house barge a few years ago that rode too high in the water and couldn’t get under,” Uli tells me. “They tried filling two portable swimming pools on deck, but finally had 82 passengers from tour buses come on board. That got them through.”

I walk into Capestang for a noontime pizza, then we shove off for the last time. An hour later, we dock at a small colony of houseboats which Uli and Ute call home port and where they winter on the barge. But just before we dock, the Caroline glides by an amorous couple at vineyard’s edge, whiling away the afternoon as only the French know how.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back on a train from Bèziers to Toulouse. But tonight, I savor my final meal aboard—Ute’s rich boeuf bourguignon and a bottle of Corbières—and watch the dusk give way to darkness around the sweet Caroline.

Popular Barge Cruise Destinations

Most of the canals in Europe were built in the U.K., Holland and France. But it’s France that most interests wine lovers who want to visit their favorite vineyards while meandering along on a hotel barge. Canal tours that cater to wine touring are available in:

Loire Valley
Rhône Valley
South West

Barge tours are also available in the Mosel region of Germany, but most other water travel in Germany, Austria and Eastern Europe is by much larger cruise ships that tour the Rhine and Danube. Most of these are not dedicated to winery and vineyard visits.

The Douro in Portugal does have riverboat wine touring, but these are usually one- or two-day trips. Alas, visiting the vineyards of Spain and Italy is still mainly accomplished by land.

From the South of France: Coq au Vin

As owners and operators of the Caroline, a small hotel barge that plies the waters of the Canal du Midi as it cuts across the South of France, Uli and Ute Weber are experts in the cuisine of the region. Uli, who captains the ship, usually does the shopping for fresh ingredients in the local markets from Carcassonne to Bezier, while Ute converts Uli’s finds into gourmet lunches and dinners for the Caroline’s passengers.

“The most typical dish of the region, apart from cassoulet and bouillabaisse, is coq au vin,” Ute says, “because the ingredients are everywhere, the preparation is easy and the taste is great as well.”

Coq au Vin
1 large chicken (about 4 pounds), cut into 8 pieces
2 medium onions, peeled and quartered
4–8 cloves of garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
4 carrots, peeled and diced
1 leek, washed, halved and sliced into rough pieces
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
6½ cups regional red wine
5–6 ounces bacon
6 button mushrooms, quartered
Oil for cooking
2 tablespoons lard

To marinade the chicken: In a large bowl, place the chicken, onions, garlic cloves, carrots and leek and mix with salt, pepper, thyme, bay leaf and wine. Let marinate in the refrigerator overnight, up to 24 hours.

To make the coq au vin: Drain meat and vegetables in a large strainer and keep the marinade, separating the chicken from the vegetables. Remove thyme and bay leaf. Heat oil in a large pan with 2 tablespoons of lard. Brown the chicken, adding salt and pepper to taste. Fry the bacon in a pan and add the chicken pieces. Pour in the marinade and the vegetables. Let simmer for about 1 hour, then add in the mushrooms and simmer for 30 minutes longer.

To finish: Remove the chicken pieces from the broth and keep warm. If necessary, thicken the sauce. If you would like it spicier, add a little Espeletter pepper. Serves 4.

Wine recommendations: Uli recommends a red from the Corbières or Faugères regions.

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Published on February 1, 2012