As the winter cruise season launches, bookings for spring and summer sails across Europe steadily rise. From renovated barges and nimble yachts to mega-ships, wine lovers are spoiled with options.
“Wine has been an enormous growth area for cruises, and the lines are adding programs all the time,” says Chris Gray Faust, managing editor at Cruise Critic. “Examples include the wine-focused theme river cruises run by European line AmaWaterways, the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) courses run by Cunard, and the growth of food and wine culinary cruises by lines such as Seabourn, Windstar and SeaDream.”
In other words, there are multiple ways to enjoy wine on your next high-seas adventure.
The Best Wine-Focused Itineraries
There are two types of sailings that course through wine regions: river and open water.
Long the arteries of the Old World, rivers helped fuel the swift and robust rise of Europe’s wine trade. How else could the exquisite fortified wines from inland Douro Valley have reached Porto and then England and beyond?
Today, wine lovers can choose from a variety of itineraries that traverse the atmospheric curves of the Rhine, Rhône, Seine, Danube and even the Columbia River in the United States. Keep in mind, however, reduced snowmelt from European mountains have caused water levels to lower, creating occasional cancellations or disruptions in certain areas, with buses often used between destinations. Ask your tour operator for updates and purchase travel insurance.
AmaWaterways offers the full package, from great regional itineraries and excursions to interesting onboard programming. AmaWaterways’s wine cruises usually feature a North American winery host, which gives guests access to Old World (on shore) and New World (on board) wines for comparison. During the day, guests are immersed in local wine regions with tastings and tours hosted by winemakers. Back on the boat, the guest winery hosts dinners and leads discussions. AmaWaterways has more than 60 wine cruises planned for 2019, which include “Taste of Bordeaux” and “Enticing Douro.”
Avalon Waterways offers several wine-themed departures in 2019 along the Danube, Rhine, Rhône, Saône and Seine. Featured programs include “The Blue Danube Discovery for Wine Lovers,” “Burgundy & Provence for Wine Lovers,” “Grand France for Wine Lovers” and “Rhine & Rhône Revealed for Wine Lovers.”
Uniworld’s Connoisseur Collection sailings cover the best of France, with specific departures for Paris & Normandy, Burgundy & Provence, and Bordeaux. The trips include excursions to famous restaurants, vineyards, truffle farms and other wine and culinary points of interest. For example, in Bordeaux, guests visit the La Cité du Vin, an interactive museum devoted to wine.
Viking also traverses Europe’s rivers and offers occasional winery visits in Portugal, France, Germany and Austria. Quality and intensity of programming, as well as access to regional wines on board, varies by ship and itinerary. Generally, Viking’s offerings are better suited for wine beginners.
Rather than float aboard a river boat, you can also cruise by barge. Antique canals meander through Europe’s countryside and lend themselves to such travel. Once used for cargo transport, these barges serve as floating boutique hotels along the preserved waterways. The refurbished ships are perfect for groups of 2 to 22 passengers seeking a wine program that takes them through places like the Loire, Burgundy or Alsace. Book at Barge Lady Cruises.
River cruises aren’t solely the domain of Europe. In the Pacific Northwest, UnCruise Adventures highlights wine regions along the Columbia and Snake rivers. Sailing roundtrip out of Portland, the program visits four American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), accompanied by a sommelier and guest wine experts.
While a multi-country itinerary across the Mediterranean doesn’t immediately conjure visions of vineyard picnics, in fact, many of its great cities are tucked into storied wine regions. Consider Barcelona’s proximity to Priorat and Penedès (the region most known for Cava), or the ease of reaching Provence from Marseille. And just about every Greek island makes local wine, not to mention the great vineyards of the Antipodes accessible by boat.
Oceania will be hosting sailings with Food & Wine Trails in 2019. Good food has always been a pillar of this luxury line, and now, in partnership with Food & Wine Trails, it will offer 11 wine-focused tours through the Mediterranean: Tuscany and Santorini. The Tuscany cruise includes a half-day trip into the fabled region. First, guests will visit the medieval walled town of Suvereto, then head to super Tuscan estate Tua Rita for a tour and multicourse lunch with wine pairings. The Santorini itinerary includes a similar day-trip with stops in the white-washed villages of Oia and Fira, follow by a tour, tasting and lunch at Boutari winery.
Going a nautical mile further into far-flung ports, superluxury cruise line Seabourn sails to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Morocco, and it offers a number of wine-related shore excursions in each country.
Winery-Hosted Sailings Featuring Wine Experts and Educational Opportunities
SeaDream Yacht Club, voted Best Luxury Small Cruise Ship of 2015 by Forbes, sells “Wine Voyages.” These feature enhanced cuisine and beverage selections in conjunction with guest wineries, where a representative from the producer conducts tastings and hosts dinner on board. For example, the nine-day Lisbon to Bordeaux program features famous Douro Valley winery Niepoort, while Rome to Venice boasts hosts Ca’ del Bosco from Franciacorta, or Dievole from Tuscany.
If a trip across the South Pacific’s teal lagoons tops your wish list, don’t worry: you can still enjoy high-level wine programming while sailing around French Polynesia. In fact, Paul Gauguin Cruises, named after the post-Impressionist artist, has a series of winery-hosted sailings: from Bogle Vineyards in February, to Napa’s Salvestrin, Whitehall Lane, and Peju, back-to-back in July. Each will include tastings of the respective winery.
Silversea’s series of Wine Voyages call on destinations with a dedicated wine ambassador, Lawrence d’Almeida in tow. D’Almeida, who’s on board up to 70 days per year, pours three wines during a 45-minute overview of topics like “The Nature and History of Wine, from Antiquity to 1970,” and “The Wine Revolution: The World of Wine since 1970.” There’s also a chance to take a Sommelier Certificate Course, and high-profile wine producers are invited frequently to sail and sip along.
Education is also a component of some Seabourn sailings. Its cruises offer classes run by sommeliers for an additional fee. Gray Faust took a course and declared the experience “fabulous,” appreciating how food and beverage managers made sure participants received Champagne, not simply sparkling wine.
Great Onboard Wine Programs
Several cruise lines have made diversifying their wine lists and offering great bottlings a top priority.
Silversea’s D’Almeida stocks serious Bordeaux, with many top labels landing on the cruise ships’ fine wine list or Connoisseur Wine package. Silversea offers, arguably, the largest selection of complimentary wines of any cruise line, with some 65 labels from around the world.
Princess Cruises recently overhauled its wine program, as Doug Frost MS, MW has almost doubled available selections. “The previous list was somewhat reliant upon larger wineries and importers, says Frost. “The new list diversifies through the addition of smaller, lesser-known producers.” Wines to look for: Raats Chenin Blanc from South Africa alongside Foreau Vouvray; Navarro Gewürztraminer versus Domaine Weinbach Gewurztraminer; as well as Château de Cruzeau Pessac-Leognan Blanc, Numanthia Termes and Angelo Gaja’s Ca’Marcanda Promis.
Enhanced wine and spirits packages are available on all SeaDream voyages. In addition to complimentary wines, SeaDream cellars are stocked with a varied collection of rare and popular high-end wines. Producers include Château Ducru-Beaucaillou and Joseph Phelps.
Norwegian touts its award-winning beverage program that now includes selections via Coravin. Wines like Château Pichon-Lalande, Heidi Barrett’s Amuse Bouche, “M” by Michael Mondavi, and Gérard Bertrand’s Clos d’Ora can be sipped by the glass for a fee.
Crystal Cruises offers a special dinner in its Vintage Room for a fee. Billed as a “one-of-a-kind culinary experience featuring some of the rarest wines in the world,” it’s offered on select sailings aboard both Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony. Depending on the wines, dinners can run up to $1,000 per person. On these same ships, Crystal also runs theme excursions dedicated to food and wine with sommeliers who provide insights on the wines poured.
Further nods to thoughtful curation include Holland America’s Pinnacle Grill, the line’s Pacific Northwest-inspired steakhouse. A roster of Pacific Northwest wines complement the cuisine. According to Gray Faust, both HAL President Orlando Ashford and Group CEO Stein Kruse are big wine drinkers. In Seabourn’s restaurant, The Grill by Thomas Keller, the famed chef personally picked each label to match his dishes.
And if none of the above satisfy your wine needs, you can always smuggle a bottle of Pétrus aboard to drink in secret on your balcony.