Wine tasting cruise experiences: Why wine and cruising are a perfect mix

Chateau Petrus is one of the world's most consistently lauded – and expensive – wines. The Bordeaux region vineyard only produces around 3000 bottles a year, and half of those are consumed in France. If you're keen to try this legendary wine on a cruise, though, you can always phone your Cunard butler and ask him to deliver a bottle to your cabin, though US$3200 ($4368) (plus a 15 per cent service charge) will be added to your on-board account.

On the other hand, on Celebrity Cruises' ships you can swipe you account card and just help yourself at the automatic wine dispensers at Cellar Masters for a few dollars. You can get full or half glasses, but a more modest tasting size is a great way to acquaint yourself with a variety of world wines. At certain times a sommelier is on hand to help guide your choices.

No matter how you do it, your wine experience while cruising will likely be a good one. Cruise passengers are being offered more sophisticated wines and more variety than ever before. Many ships have dedicated wine bars such as Vines Bar on Princess Cruises' ships and Vintages on some Royal Caribbean vessels. Disney Dream has champagne bar Pink (its Taittinger Prestige Rosé is specially labelled for Disney) and Cunard's Queen Mary 2 has a Veuve Clicquot Champagne Bar. The new Norwegian Escape has Norwegian Cruise Line's first wine bar at sea, The Cellars, which carries 35 grape varietals and offers tastings and wine-appreciation classes.

With increased passenger knowledge about wines and a marked trend towards quality rather than just price, wines served across the board on ships are also evolving. P&O Australia's Food and Beverage Operations Manager Steve Stubbs says the company carries 120 wines on its ships, all from Australia and New Zealand apart from its French champagne. "We've seen a rise in popularity of Pinot Gris, Pinot Grigio and premium Chardonnays. Now we're planning to introduce more varieties such as Rousanne, Viognier and Grenache."

Wine takes a higher share of sales then either beer or cocktails on P&O Australia ships. The company is planning more wine-themed experiences when Pacific Aria and Pacific Eden join the fleet in November, including a new cellar door with daily wine tastings, master classes and vintage seminars. From next year, there will also be more of P&O's popular three-night food-and-wine cruises.

Princess Cruises too is adjusting its wines to reflect changing guest palates. Although local ships Sun Princess, Dawn Princess and Sea Princess carry wines from New Zealand, France, Italy and the US, all but three of its 30 new wines are from Australian vineyards. "Australians were big on home grown wine," says Karl Brenner, the company's Director of Guest Beverage Experience. "The main shift has been towards white wines with a big range of Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs, and more blends. Shiraz and Cabernet remain favourites among reds."

What's apparent is that passengers are willing to let their palate wander. Many cruise lines are responding by offering learn-as-you-drink experiences. Among them, the Wine Cellar on Azamara Club Cruises' ships stocks 8000 bottles of small-label, limited-production and vintage wines; sommeliers will help you choose one to match your meal, or steer you through a private tasting. Celebrity Cruises has programs for wine enthusiasts and a 'Riedel Wine Crystal Workshop' to guide you through the subtly different ways that wines present themselves in different glassware.

Royal Caribbean also hosts wine tastings, notably a 'Lafite Wine Tasting' with the ship's cellarmaster for a tasting of four red vintages from Château Lafite Rothschild, one of the world's most famous wine estates. Meanwhile La Reserve on two Oceania ships (Riviera and Marina) provides luxe wine-pairing dinners, seminars and tastings developed by eminent Wine Spectator magazine, often themed on regions through which the ship is sailing. If you care for caviar with a French Dom Ruinart Brut Rosé, or sous-vide Kobe beef matched with an Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Riserva from Italy's Veneto region, you're in the right place.

Sommelier Roland Brenner organises wine tastings on Europa 2. There's plenty of choice: the luxe Hapag-Lloyd Cruises' ship carries 19,000 bottles of wine from 14 countries. "The most expensive wine on board is the 2008 Romanée St. Vivant Domaine Romanée Conti from Burgundy at 1030 euros ($1587) a bottle," says Brenner. "But you can buy wine at 17 euros ($27) a bottle as well."

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Then there are cruises that go far beyond the sip-and-spit routine to offer a specific wine focus. Silversea has sailings that feature a wine or food-and-wine theme, with on-board cooking demonstrations with wine pairings and interactive Q&A sessions. Passengers can sample vintage wines and learn about winemaking during tastings and lectures conducted by wine expert and former winemaker Lawrence d'Almeida.

SeaDream Yacht Club has eight Mediterranean sailings next year that allow guests to meet eminent winemakers, enjoy tastings of their wines, and participate in specially-created dinners. There are also optional excursions to small wineries. The company has previously offered wine education diploma courses for those serious about their vintages.

Where ocean cruises struggle is in offering shore excursions to wine regions, which aren't always readily accessible from ports of call. There are some exceptions: Celebrity Cruises tours the Auckland wine region, Royal Caribbean has Hunter Valley tours, P&O Australia visits McLaren Vale, Princess Cruises visits New Zealand's Hawke's Bay. Azamara Club cruises is unusual in having ocean ships small enough to sail into Bordeaux and offer shore excursions to Saint-Émilion.

If you really want to get up close to wine country, European river cruises are the way to go, though there are dedicated wine cruises on the USA's Columbia River too. European river ships sail right through regions that include Germany's Rhineland, France's Rhone Valley, and Austria's Wachau region. Many have shore excursions dedicated to the wine experience. Uniworld has an organic wine tasting at Nikolaihof estate in Austria and a wine-pairing lunch at Château d'Arche in the Bordeaux region, during which guests sample three Sauternes wines of different estates and vintages. Scenic, which launched in Bordeaux this year, has an evening sundowner of Grand Cru Classe wines at Château Soutard in Saint-Émilion, and also offers a guided cycle from Cadillac through the Sauternes wine region, with a wine tasting at Château Murat.

APT debuts in the Bordeaux region next year with ports of call in some of wine's most famous towns, such as Pauillac, Cognac and Saint-Émilion, with private wine-pairing dinners at Château Pape Clément and a visit to a cooperage in Ludon. The company is also launching a 'Wine Ambassador Program' with leading Australian wine industry personalities, such as Bruce Tyrrell from Tyrrell's Wines and Darren Davis and Amy White from Seppeltsfield, who will host tastings and wine-pairing dinners, lead shore excursions to wineries and explain local wine-making traditions.

Some of the program's highlights include a visit to Château Smith Haut Lafitte in Cadillac in France for a tasting of Sauternes, and an exploration of the underground network of wine cellars at Cordeliers Cloister in Saint-Émilion. "It isn't just an insight into the history and heritage of wine-making in the regions our river cruises visit, but the chance to taste the produce at source while being guided by some outstanding vintners," says APT Chief Marketing Officer Debra Fox.

It's such cruises out of Bordeaux (along the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers and Gironde Estuary) that have the biggest wine focus, as well as those from Porto along the Douro River in Portugal, the oldest officially demarcated wine region in the world and famous for its port wines. Still, cruise companies balk at calling them wine cruises. Avalon Waterways, however, is notable for offering wine-themed cruises timed to coincide with local wine festivals and feature private vineyard tours and tastings, and lessons in food-and-wine pairing. The company explores the vineyards of the Danube, Rhone, Moselle and Seine rivers.

Avalon's 'Blue Danube Discovery' cruise, for example, cruises through Austria's Wachau region, notable for its Blauer Zweigelt and peppery Grüner Veltliner wine varieties, and has a shore visit to Loisium, one of the most original cellar doors in the world. Here visitors are taken underground and treated to multimedia shows, dancing fountains and ancient cellars, before popping up into a farmhouse as it would have looked in 1924, down to the old vineyard accounts lying on the kitchen table. Then it's back underground to learn about winemaking and set sound-and-light displays in motion via touchscreens. It ends with the floating bubbles of the region's famous sparkling Steininger sekt wine projected on a giant screen. Who wouldn't want to raise a glass to that?

INTO THE SPIRIT

Wine not your tipple? There are other ways to wet your whistle while cruising.

1 The sommelier on board Hapag-Lloyd's luxe ship Europa 2 organises gin tastings. Passengers can learn about the origin, ingredients and various categories of gin as they compare six different drops from the impressive on-board range of 37 gins.

2 The newly renovated Wheelhouse Bar on Princess Cruises' Australia-based Dawn Princess has a choice of 56 whiskies, including five local tipples from Tasmanian, Western Australian and Melbourne whisky makers.

3 River-cruise company Avalon Waterways has beer-themed cruises, including an eight-day 'Essential Holland & Belgium' cruise in April 2016. It includes on-board beer tastings, visits to historic breweries and lectures on European beer-brewing.

4 Viking River Cruises has an optional shore excursion to Cognac on its 'Chateaux, Rivers and Wine' cruise in France's Bordeaux region. Passengers learn the art of Cognac-making at brandy house Camus, then blend and bottle their own.

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