Today, upscale cruise ships are appealing to passengers who already appreciate wine and want to learn more about the global wine experience. Luxury vessels for years have been bringing aboard celebrated winemakers who interact with passengers, but now some are presenting stand-alone, state-of-the-art facilities paired with wine education programs, wine immersion classes, seminars, tastings, and extravagant wine dinners.
Now Oceania Line, a cruise line that straddles the premium/luxury categories, offers wine fans La Reserve by Wine Spectator, the cruise industry's first professional shipboard wine tasting/educational facility. Located on Deck 12 of the new Riviera and sister ship Marina, the dedicated wine room is an attractive, masculine space with dark woods and stainless steel, geared toward wine and food lovers. (The new Riviera was christened in Barcelona by celebrity chef Cat Cora smashing a 15-liter, 250-pound nebuchadnezzar bottle of Veuve Clicquot Champagne.)
"Obviously Wine Spectator came to mind and helped us with the wine list," said Franco Semeraro, senior vice president, hotel operations for Oceania Cruises. In fact each and every wine offered to guests aboard these ships is rated at 85 points or higher by the wine publication. Wine flights, seminars, and specialty wine tastings take place in La Reserve throughout the day, such as a tasting of Spanish reds that occurred after leaving Barcelona. Evenings are reserved for very special wine dinners, with a maximum of 24 people per seating.
La Reserve by Wine Spectator offers guests three tasting menus pairing seven courses with seven wines: the Exploration Menu ($95 plus gratuity); the Discovery Menu ($95 plus gratuity); and the Connoisseur Menu ($165 plus gratuity). The vibe in La Reserve is more urban cool than shipboard prosaic. (They even serve an exclusive selection of salts from around the world.) Dishes such as stuffed brioche with duck foie gras paired with 2009 Chateau la Variere from the Loire Valley or chateaubriand with Bordelaise sauce and roasted baby potatoes with 2007 Chateau Bouscaut Grand Cru were a huge hit with the diners enjoying the Exploration Menu. The Riviera's sommeliers offer guidance at every step, such as to first taste the food alone, then the wine alone, and then try them together to see how it worked. The program is already popular with guests. "This is the best wine experience I've ever had, onboard or not," said guest Tim Burtch of Toronto.
The more expensive La Reserve Connoisseur Menu presents dishes such as butter poached brittany blue lobster with vegetable nage and beetroot cress paired with a 2007 Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay from Napa Valley, and seared kobe beef sous vide with Valrhona sauce paired with a 2005 Marchesi Fumanelli Octavius, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Riserva DOCG. These elaborate meals are treats for discerning guests who would not likely be sampling or creating such combinations of fine cuisine and expensive wines at home.
Of course, Oceania isn't the only cruise line offering high-end wine experiences. Luxury category Crystal Cruises, which has recently switched to an "all-inclusive" plan, presents wine-oriented dinners in its Vintage Room. Priced at an extra $210 per person, 10 to 12 guests dine on intricate culinary feasts, while being hosted by noted vintners, chefs, wine experts, and others. For instance, Andre Rochat, Las Vegas' original celebrity chef of Andre's Restaurant and Lounge and the stunning Alize, planned to host a Vintage Room dinner this year. Guests may taste and enjoy big-name wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Napa Valley, Rioja, Champagne, and beyond at the lavish dinners. Besides wines free of charge through its all-inclusive plan, Crystal recommends a special connoisseur list for its finer wines.
"Our Wine Series voyages are a great way for guests to broaden their understanding and appreciation for fine wines," said Ellen Bettridge, Silversea's president of the Americas. Each Silversea wine-themed cruise provides passionate oenophiles a chance to explore new wines, learn about different regions, and even take guided shore excursions to wine regions near ports of call. Lyn Farmer, a James Beard Foundation Award winner for best writing on wine and spirits and international wine competitions judge, was to be hosting an extensive wine voyage through South America on the Silver Cloud this year.
Seabourn presents exclusive wine-tasting parties on every cruise. Priced at $75 and $125, these events involve a maximum of 14 guests. Some tastings compare Old World and New World wines; others have wines brought in from local wineries near a port. "The standard wine package aboard Seabourn is great," said frequent Seabourn traveler Aaron Kelling, visiting from Philadelphia. "They offer quite a few whites and reds of pretty high quality."
Though luxurious ships at sea have always offered the best vintages to their wealthiest customers, today more people than ever are enjoying wine education, intriguing tastings, food and wine pairings, and spending time with like-minded travelers. Riviera sells bottles of wine from $29 to $5,000, for an aged Chateau Petrus. However, Oceania's Semeraro said, "Wines that sell the most run between $30 and $70 per bottle." The price of good wine and wine appreciation at sea is finally within reach.
To comment, e-mail TravelTalk@phillynews.com.