Love wine but want to know more about what you’re drinking? Join the experts on Celebrity Cruises’ Immersive Wine Cruise, says Becky Wiggins
I’m scribbling fast in my notebook as Oz Clarke revs up into full flow, talking about the McLaren Vale Grenache he is currently sloshing everywhere while making his point. “Take another slurp,” he implores us, closing his eyes in rapture. “Get those big, bold, ripe strawberry flavours.” I abandon my notes and do as
I’m told. And yes, I get the strawberry. I am triumphant.
My husband Jim and I love our wine: we’re fond of an Aussie Shiraz and a Californian Pinot Noir. And while we’re not serious collectors, we know what we like and spend quite a bit on our favourite bottles. As armchair aficionados, however, we are far from being connoisseurs. So the opportunity to join legendary wine expert Oz Clarke and Tom Forrest, Senior Wine Expert at London’s wine tasting attraction Vinopolis, sailing through Spain and France on board Celebrity Infinity was really too good to miss.
Tom and Oz have a marvellous rapport. Oz is expansive, enthusiastic and tends to ramble off on a bit of a wine tangent; Tom, the Wise to Clarke’s Morecambe, expertly steers the talk back on track. They wisecrack constantly and frequently finish each other’s sentences. Their wine master classes were hilarious, informative and, as you can imagine, a bit boozy. With my limited wine knowledge I was worried that I would be out of my league, but there was no snobbery. They spent a lot of time talking to us about wine, both during the master classes and also during increasingly giggly conversations rather late into the night in the Martini Bar.
The Immersive Wine Cruise visits several wine producing areas and there are all sorts of different talks, sessions and workshops you can join – all in quite small groups so that we had time to ask questions and have a proper chat with Oz and Tom about the wines. We also had the opportunity to visit vineyards accompanied by the experts, which is an incredibly interesting experience and not to be missed. Oz has written a book about Bordeaux wines and knows most of the vineyard owners, making the tours even more tailor-made and personal. You can pick and choose which sessions you participate in, as they’re all bookable for a fee (ranging from £69 for the six course wine tasting dinner to £169 per person for the vineyard tour). On the day we docked in Bilbao, for example, we spent the morning tasting Spanish wines, which really enhanced our on-shore experience, encouraging us to seek out a restaurant with a good wine list so we could show off our new-found knowledge.
One of the highlights for us was the cheese and wine pairing session. We started with a Wild Rock ‘The Infamous Goose’ Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and with trademark expansive wine sloshing and arm waving, Oz coached us on how the green notes in the wine mirrored the acidity in the fresh-tasting cheese: “Green apple. Gooseberry. Get your nose right in the glass.”
Carrying on through different wine and cheese matches, with the expert help of Oz and Tom, we began to feel that we were really understanding why certain cheeses went well with different wines – a ripe, oaky Chardonnay with a creamy sheep’s cheese and the sweet, bold Grenache with a savoury, nutty cheddar. It all started to make sense. They even managed to persuade me that Roquefort is actually quite pleasant when paired with the honeyed taste of their chosen Klein Constantia Muscat ‘Vin de Constance 2005’ from South Africa.
Celebrity Infinity is a beautiful ship and I was surprised to hear that we were at full capacity. There seemed to be lots of space, and although we were asked if we’d like to share tables in the main dining restaurant, Trellis, there was always a table for two available (we’re not that sociable). The food served in all the onboard restaurants was of a very high standard. In Trellis, notable dishes included a deliciously tender slow-roasted dish of short ribs, delicate sea bass, and a surf and turf dish with a steak so huge it beat even my dedicated carnivore husband.
Highlights included lunch at Bistro on Five ($5 cover charge) and dinner at speciality restaurant Qsine ($45 cover charge).
We also spent a lot of time at the Martini Bar (I blame Oz and Tom for this) where the bar is topped with ice and the bar staff make amazing cocktails and entertain with all sorts of theatrical shenanigans, including pouring several Martinis at once.
Celebrity is well known for their incredible wine list – onboard restaurants have over 400 wines available, including a large selection of fine wines and champagnes – plus having two wine experts choosing the wine to match your food choices (dinner with wine chosen by Oz and Tom is also part of the Immersive Wine Cruise experience) made it extra special. I’ll confess to a little frisson of excitement hearing Oz say “I think Becky will really like this one,” – a testament to the fact that you get to spend lots of time chatting with the experts.
People come back year after year for the Immersive Wine Cruise and we met some fascinating characters on board. It was great to share experiences with the group as they were from really diverse backgrounds and varied from seasoned cruisers (Caroline and Dave, resplendent in his white dinner jacket) to cruise ‘virgins’ like my husband (doesn’t own a dinner jacket – it honestly doesn’t matter). We all had a love of wine in common and it was a real treat to sample incredible wines, visit vineyards and enjoy food-matching dinners together. Lots of people on these cruises strike up friendships and return to meet up again next time. I managed to call one lady Sharon the entire trip, only to find out that her name was, in fact, nothing of the sort. She still seemed to like me.
Of course our cruise wasn’t all about wine, and we enjoyed a wonderful, sunny day in Bilbao, including a visit to the Guggenheim Museum, and a slightly chillier wander around Le Havre.
On board, away from the food and drink, there is a beautiful pool deck. And to detox after all that wine, there’s the luxurious AquaSpa where I had my favourite Elemis Tri-Enzyme facial. My husband chose to pound the treadmill in the gym a few times, but I preferred a gentle walk around the deck or a coffee and a slice of cake with new friends in Café Al Bacio. Each to their own, I suppose.
So what was the verdict from my new to cruise husband? He loved the ship and found the whole ‘waking up in a different country every day’ aspect really appealing. We both learned so much on the Immersive Wine Cruise and would definitely go on another one to keep expanding our wine knowledge and grasp the opportunity to taste even more fabulous wines. I think it’s particularly gratifying to learn something that you can keep using when you get home. Having experts on hand definitely enhances the whole experience, and we made some wonderful friends too. The only downside is that we now spend considerably more on wine. Bottoms up.
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