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Wine Cruises on Europe’s Rivers

Written by  Lillian Africano

Despite a slight cooling of travel on Europe’s rivers, new ships (and refits), new itineraries and new land-based components are set to launch this year-with an ever stronger focus on food and wine.
In response to consumer interest, designated wine cruises in particular offer comprehensive programs that include daily tastings, lectures, food pairings, land-based wine activities such as visits to vineyards, chateaux, wine cellars and local markets.

AmaWaterways has gone all in on designated wine cruises, with eight different itineraries on virtually all the major European cruise rivers: the Danube, Douro, Dordogne (and Garonne), the Rhine, Rhône and Seine.
Avalon sails seven “Wine Lover” itineraries on the Rhine and Rhône, the Saône and the Danube.
Other lines, including Viking and Uniworld, fold the wine component into broader itineraries. For example, Viking’s “Châteaux, Rivers & Wine” option in Bordeaux features the Culture Curriculum®, which includes a sampling of Bordeaux wines, classes with a master sommelier and instruction on how to pair wine with food. Uniworld offers similar activities on its “Bordeaux, Vineyards & Châteaux” itinerary and on the “Burgundy & Provence” sailings.
In addition to itineraries that include “wine” or a wine-related term in their itinerary descriptions, virtually every riverboat that calls on ports in a wine region, will feature at least one wine-related activity whether it be a wine tasting or a food pairing.

Anatomy of a Wine Cruise (Abbreviated)
In 2016, I sailed (with a number of travel agents) on AmaWaterways’ then-new “Taste of Bordeaux” itinerary, which would take me on the Garonne and Dordogne rivers to some of premier wine regions of France-and the world. There would, of course, be tours to famous landmarks and historic places, but the focus of each day was wine. At each lunch and dinner there would be suggested wine pairings.
The wine expert on the cruise was Christopher Silva, CEO of the St. Francis Winery in Sonoma, California. As expected, the wines of the St. Frances Winery would be featured in lectures and onboard activities. As much as possible, the onboard lectures were scheduled so as not to conflict with major tours.
My anxiety about not being sufficiently “expert” to enjoy the talks was dispelled early on, when Christopher Silva led the “ZINTASTIC! Zinfandel Component Blending Seminar.” After tasting and discussing some of Sonoma’s best single-vineyard Zinfandels, attendees were invited to blend their own versions of “Old Vines” Zinfandel-just as real winemakers would do.
As would happen throughout the cruise, passengers were actively involved and animated, asking questions and enjoying their attempts at winemaking. While it became clear that some of the questioners were fairly knowledgeable about Zinfandel, many were like me-ready to learn and to have a good time. (I tasted the results of my first winemaking experiment and decided that my blend was even better than the one produced by the St. Francis Winery. CEO Silva didn’t agree.)
Another lecture and tasting focused on Bordeaux wine and ended with Silva offering a taste of his vineyard’s port, which, even to my untrained palate, was sublime.
I especially looked forward to the session on Cabernet Sauvignon, about which I knew next to nothing. After tasting and listening and taking notes (as many others seemed to be doing), now I know a few things that might help me choose wisely in my local wine shop.
On land, an early (and typical) tour took place in the Sauterne region, to the Château Guiraud, where passengers were served tastings of the highly-sought-after sweet wines produced there. (Along the way our coach passed the legendary Château d’Yquem, where, we learned, some of the world’s finest and most expensive Sauternes--a bottle of the 1811 recently sold at auction for 85,000 Euro--are made.)
In the little town of Bourg, where general sightseeing took up most of the day, the ship’s guests were invited to an evening Fête du Vin, a food and wine party at the local Maison du Vin.
In picture-perfect Saint-Emilion, the highlight was a tasting at Château Soutard, where three Merlots were offered, from young to old. These wines were so good that they presented a real temptation to risk packing a couple of bottles in checked baggage. A bonus was the presence of a film crew working on the French version of Top Chef.

At the end of the cruise, when the boat returned to Bordeaux, passengers were given complimentary tickets (the regular price is 32 Euro) to visit the new attraction called La Cite du Vin, which is much more than a museum and more like an interactive experience that includes exhibitions, films, workshops and everything you can imagine relating to the world of wine in Bordeaux. The building’s unusual shape represents wine being swirled in glass. (If I hadn’t been told, I never would have guessed.)
Though dinners were generally very good, a couple were standouts: The winemaker’s dinner (featuring the St Francis wines) and the Chaine des Rotisseurs dinner. (AmaWaterways is the only river cruise line that has been inducted into the prestigious culinary organization that was founded in Paris in 1950 to honor the traditions of the Royal Guild of Goose Roasters, originally chartered in the 13th century.)
Beyond the wine, there were many tour highlights including: castles and fortresses; a 17th century citadel listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site; a picturesque 1828 wash-house, the laundromat of the early 19th century; the market in Creon, where our group tasted bread, cheese and Serrano ham; the vineyards of Chateaux Margaux-and a passing glimpse of the legendary Château Lafite Rothschild.
The ship, the AmaDolce, though built in 2009, was very comfortable and still had a contemporary feel. (A bonus for me was the pleasure of seeing prints of the works of one of my favorite artists, Gustav Klimt, all over the ship.) There was a positive energy throughout the cruise, enhanced no doubt by the ebullient presence of the company’s co-owner, Kristin Karst, who makes a point of greeting and chatting with everyone on board. The agents I spoke with agreed that this was a product they could recommend to “foodie” clients and to those who would enjoy a cruise where the demographic skews a bit younger than that on other river cruise categories.

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