Waves, wine, winning! Liners offer booze cruises with a difference
Today, luxury cruise liners are not just places to stare out to sea for two weeks feeling smugly pleased with how one's life turned out.
They are becoming places to learn about something not often associated with the ocean -- wine.
In recent years cruise ships have started to team up with celebrated winemakers to run wine education programs, immersion classes, seminars, tastings and extravagant dinners.
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One such line -- Oceania Cruises, an upper premium cruise line geared toward wine and food lovers -- christened its new 66,000-ton liner Riviera in Barcelona last May.
Celebrity chef Cat Cora smashed a 15-liter, 114-kilo, US$1,500 Nebuchadnezzar of Veuve Clicquot Champagne against its side.
If you can get over that awful wastage, Riviera (along with its sister ship Marina) offers the cruise industry’s first professional onboard wine tasting/educational facility -- La Reserve by Wine Spectator.
The dedicated, stand-alone wine room on deck 12 is an attractive, masculine space with dark woods and stainless steel.
“Obviously Wine Spectator came to mind and helped us with the wine list,” says Franco Semeraro, senior vice president hotel operations for Oceania Cruises.
Each wine offered onboard the ship is highly rated by the magazine.
Wine flights and specialty wine tastings take place throughout the day -- guests can expect to sample a flight of Spanish reds including Vega-Sicilia when cruising through Spanish seas.
Evenings are reserved for very special La Reserve wine dinners, seating a maximum of 24 gourmands.
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Not cheap, not expensive
They come with three tasting menus pairing seven courses with seven wines: the Exploration Menu (US$95), the Discovery Menu (US$95) and the Connoisseur Menu (US$165).
The vibe in La Reserve is more urban cool than shipboard prosaic. They even stock an exclusive selection of salts from around the world.
Dishes such as stuffed brioche with duck foie gras paired with 2009 Château la Varière from the Loire Valley, or chateaubriand with Bordelaise sauce and roasted baby potatoes with 2007 Château Bouscaut Grand Cru are a huge hit with diners enjoying the Exploration Menu.
The Riviera’s sommeliers extend guidance at every step: first taste the food alone, then the wine alone and finally try them together.
The program is already popular. “This is the best wine experience I’ve ever had, onboard or not,” said guest Tim Burtch of Toronto, Canada.
For passengers really trying to splash out, there's the more expensive La Reserve Connoisseur Menu.
Butter-poached Brittany blue lobster with vegetable nage and beetroot cress comes paired with a 2007 Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay from Napa Valley.
Seared Kobe beer sous vide with valrhona sauce is paired with a 2005 Marchesi Fumanelli Octavius, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Riserva DOCG.
These elaborate meals are not likely to be recreated back home. “Our La Reserve dinners offer good value for the money,” says Semeraro. “We want to meet the customers' demands and keep things affordable."
The Riviera sells bottles of wine from as little as US$29 up to US$5,000 for an aged Petrus.
“Wines that sell the most run between US$30 and US$70 per bottle,” he adds.
More where that came from
Another cruise company taking wine to the waves is Crystal Cruises, which presents “all-inclusive” wine-oriented dinners in its Vintage Room.
Priced at US$210 per gullet, 10 to 12 guests dine on intricate, culinary feasts, while being hosted by noted vintners, chefs and wine experts.
Andre Rochat, Las Vegas' original celebrity chef of both André's and the stunning Alizé, is hosting a Vintage Room dinner later this year.
Guests can taste and enjoy big, important wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa Valley, Rioja, Champagne, Montalcino and beyond at the lavish events.
“Our Wine Series voyages are a great way for guests to broaden their understanding and appreciation for fine wines," says Ellen Bettridge, Silversea's president of the Americas, which also stages wine-themed cruises.
Each cruise provides guests a chance to explore new wines, learn about different regions and also take guided shore excursions to wine regions near port.
Lynn Farmer, a James Beard Foundation Award winner for best writing on wine and spirits and an international wine competition judge, will be hosting an extensive wine voyage around South America on the Silversea's 16,800-ton liner Silver Cloud next December.
And Seabourn Cruise Line features yet more exclusive wine-tasting parties on its cruises. Priced at US$75 and US$125, these tastings involve a maximum of 14 guests.
Seabourn sommeliers will source small, local boutique wines, such as when in port in Provence, bring them back on board and taste them with guests at sea.
“The standard wine package aboard Seabourn is great,” says frequent Seabourn traveler Aaron Kelling, visiting from Philadelphia. “They offer quite a few whites and red of pretty high quality."
Though luxurious ships at sea have always carried the best vintages to its wealthiest customers, today you don't need to be a wealthy wine lover to taste new vintages with fine cuisine while sailing the seas.