Vineyards pour down the valley sides as cruise ships pass through some of Europe’s top wine regions. Nick Dalton raises a glass to the best wine river cruises
1. Delights of Bordeaux
Bordeaux is the holy grail of wine regions, home to Saint-Émilion and the surrounding sun-drenched slopes that produce more great wines than Oz Clarke has had hot dinners. The Gironde, splitting into the Dordogne and the Garonne, slips through the chalky hills like a knife through foie gras with cruises offering all manner of winery tours and tasting options, as well as the balmy warmth that you can only find in southwestern France. Viking’s new-for-2014 Heart of Bordeaux cruise starts from the ancient city of the same name and includes several tours as well as on board education. There’s a day trip through the Medoc and Margaux wine regions, stopping to sample several wines, a tour of Saint-Émilion, and an excursion to Sauternes to see how the famed dessert wines are made and then, of course, sample them. At an extra cost you can visit Cognac, brandy’s historic home. Viking Forseti, launched in March, is one of the new longships featuring the Aquavit Terrace at the front, perfect for sipping a glass of rich red as the shimmering scenery passes by and the sun goes down. The Culture Curriculum programme features sampling of local wines, in classes led by a guest master sommelier, and lessons on how to pair wine with food.
2. A port every day
Portugal’s River Douro is one of the big new cruise destinations, a delightfully languid journey from the coast right across the country, through a steep valley with vines growing on stone terraces. The cruise starts at Porto, and features port from start to finish. Soon after departing there’s a call at Cais de Gaia, a picturesque riverside community, where most of the world’s port is stored and aged in ancient cellars – one of which you visit. In Portugal’s heartland is Pinhão, hub of the port-making area, with a visit to a producer to learn about the 400-year-old history of port and the process involved – and tastings. There are dinners at the family-owned winery Quinta da Avessada and at the Vintage House Hotel, a converted 18th-century wine quinta overlooking the river, as well as tours of Porto, Guimarães (Portugal’s early capital), the Baroque Mateus Palace (pictured on the Mateus Rosé bottle) and the medieval Spanish city of Salamanca. The ship is boutique line Uniworld’s Queen Isabel, new for 2013 – and the complimentary wine with dinner includes port.
3. Flavour of the month
November is vino month at AmaWaterways with a total of 15 In Celebration of Wine cruises across central Europe. All of the cruises have guest experts – some of them including winemakers from California – for lectures and tastings. A pair of cruises on the Seine feature Preston Mohr, an American wine expert living in Paris (9 November) and Jean-Marc and Kristi Espinasse (8 November) of Domaine Rouge-Bleu, a boutique winery in the Rhône. The cruises, from Paris to Rouen and back, start with a wine toast and feature five on-board tastings (one of them champagne), several lectures, a visit to a winery and the Paris Wine Museum, with its 9th century vaulted cellars, and a Taste of Normandy tour (where you can try local cider and calvados). Gourmet food on board AmaLegro includes a Chaîne des Rôtisseurs dinner with wine pairing and a captain’s gala dinner. And if you were in the mood for some exercise, the ship even has complimentary bicycles.
4. Moselle & the Rhine
The wine regions in the heart of Europe have a character all their own, with steep and castle-topped hills and timbered towns lining the route. Avalon has a number of cruises in different regions with a wine focus; this one follows the Moselle wine route from Luxembourg deep into Germany. The best sight of the Riesling grape is when passing Reichsburg Castle, perched on a vine-covered hill. At Rüdesheim there is a tasting at Breuer’s Rüdesheimer Schoss, a hotel and wine restaurant with its own vineyard, a tour of the wine museum and tasting at Bernkastel, an ancient market town surrounded by Germany’s largest expanse of vineyards. Avalon Luminary, launched in 2010, is smaller than many river ships, carrying only 138 guests. It makes it a more intimate setting for the wine lectures and tastings as well as a food and wine pairing dinner, with choices made by the Master of Wine. The cruise is seven nights, with two nights in a Paris hotel (with a tasting at a winery) before taking a high-speed TGV to Remich in Luxembourg for the ship.
4. Cruising with Napoleon
Travel through the Rhône wine region in pomp and splendour on board a tiny ship (only 12 passengers) going by the name of Napoleon. The weekly cruise runs alternately between Arles and Tain l’Hermitage, after meeting in Paris for a TGV train ride south. A highlight is a Châteauneuf-du-Pape tasting, although a visit to a truffle farm comes close in epicurean hedonism. The cruise starts with a champagne reception, there’s olive oil tasting in an 18th century centre in St Rémy, lunch at a quaint Provençal restaurant and a visit to a winery near Tain l’Hermitage. Napoleon, somewhere between luxury hotel and country inn, has fine French food accompanied by regional wines. In Avignon, the ship moors by the city gate and there’s the chance to visit Roman ruins in Arles and Orange – but the itinerary is so flexible that other calls are likely.
6. Castles and Wineries
Before you start your cruise spend three nights in Paris then board a high-speed train to Luxembourg where you will embark your ship. Visit Trier, the oldest city in Germany and continue along the Mosel River, famous for Europe’s steepest vineyards. In Bernkastel and Cochem you can sample Mosel vintages before cruising the Rhine River, dotted with picturesque castles from Koblenz to Rüdesheim. Once you enter the Main River and stop at the medieval towns of Miltenberg, Wertheim and Bamberg before cruising through the Main-Danube Canal to Nuremberg. You’ll conclude with a 2-night stay in Prague.
7. Vineyards of Bordeaux
Cruise from Bordeaux through the scenic wine producing area of south-west France, home to the famous wine villages and chateaux of Margaux, Haut-Medoc and Lafite-Rothschild. The cruise takes you down the River Garonne and joins the River Gironde, passing Cazeau Island and Patiras Island before arriving Pauillac. Built long ago by wine merchants or ship captains, Pauillac has managed to preserve the fine stone houses along its quaysides. There is a visit the Medoc – where some of the most famous red wines in the world are cultivated. It is a strip of land between ocean and estuary with a mild, humid climate ideal for wine cultivation. Later, there is a visit to a family-run vineyard and wine-producer in Saint-Emilion, the medieval underground city renowned for its catacombs, where the owner explains the steps involved in producing their wine.
8. Burgundy & Provence
Cruise from the Côte d’Azur to Paris to take in a selection of wine-flavoured regions. In Avignon you can visit the famed wine cellars of Châteauneuf-du-Pape while in Lyon discover Beaujolais – the wine of the region and wine connoisseurs will know that the grapes must be hand picked. Tradition dictates that the ‘Beaujolais Nouveau’ is tasted for the first time on the third Thursday of November each year. Mâcon plays an important role in the wine trade and you can explore the city before taking a short cruise to Tournus. Here, the cloister of St Philibert or the Burgundy Museum’s folklore collection, located in an old family mansion, are worth a visit. The cruise takes you to Beaune, the unofficial capital of the Côte d’Or area home to the Burgundy region’s finest vintages. The finale is a two-night stay in Paris in the Pullman Paris Montparnasse Hotel.
9. Bordeaux, Vineyards & Chateaux
Sailing on the Garonne, the Dordogne and the Gironde rivers, the Bordeaux, Vineyards & Chateaux cruise visits some of the region’s most prestigious châteaux as well as Pauillac, the gateway to the magical Medoc wine route and Saint-Emilion, the oldest wine area of the Bordeaux region, and itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Senses are indulged with a full gourmet experience, taking in noble wine estates, splendid artisan markets, and a rich historical and cultural legacy.
10. Portugal’s River of Gold
Before embarking on your cruise from Porto, at the mouth of the Douro River, you can explore the capital city of Lisbon for two days. The Douro River winds between steeply terraced vineyards, stopping at ports of call largely unchanged for centuries with town squares, castles, baroque mansions and historic monasteries. In Foz you’ll visit a typical port wine-making facility before sailing to Bitetos, or you can choose to enjoy one of Porto’s famous port wine lodges, where you can sample wines from the traditional wooden casks. On day six you’ll arrive at Barca d’Alva and disembark for a trip to Quinta do Seixo, one of the area’s iconic port wine-making institutions. Stroll through the vineyard and take a tour to learn how these unique Portuguese products are crafted, and – of course – sample the wares in their tasting room. You’ll have the chance to dine at Quinta da Avessada, a beautiful winery in the heart of the Douro wine district and sample some local port, such as Moscatel from nearby Favaios. Enjoy the medieval city of Salamanca before the voyage back to Porto where you’ll sample the area’s sensational port and tawny wines.