What better way can there be to explore vineyards than by boat. Christine Austin is impressed by her maiden river cruise.

The best way to fall in love with a wine region is to visit it.  There is nothing like walking through a vineyard, appreciating the lie of the land, the steepness of the slope and the close-planting of the vines and then get the chance to smell the delicate fragrance of vine flowers or touch the developing grapes.  A visit to the tasting room and a few tastes of wine allows you to select one or two bottles to buy and take home. But there is a downside to driving from one estate to another – someone has to drive.  These drivers are easy to spot at any winery, usually in a corner, looking at their watch and a map, wondering how to get to the next place and back to base so they too, can have a drink.

So imagine the ease of travelling through a wine region on a boat, with vineyards hugging the banks of the river and calling points that allow independent exploration or an organised visit to some of the best wineries in the region.

I joined Viking River Cruise ship Buri for a cruise on the Rhône from Provence to Lyon, calling in at some delightful vineyards, ports and towns.  What struck me  most was the way that I understood the geography of the region so much more from a boat than I have ever done from a car.  There is nothing quite like gliding gently along the river, seeing where it has cut through the hills and the way the vines are aligned to get the best of the sun. I even understood our gradual climb  in altitude as one lock followed another, each one tall, grey and foreboding until the ship lifted up on the churning water and we emerged once more into sunlight.  All this can be seen from a car, but on a boat you can appreciate the landscape with a glass of the local wine in your hand.

There is also something rather exciting about waking up each morning in a new location, opening the curtains and realising that the ship has moored opposite one of the most famous vineyards in the world.

I joined the ship in Avignon, where it was moored right alongside the ancient city. This was my very first river cruise and I was somewhat sceptical as to whether I would enjoy the experience.  My room (apparently called a stateroom on a ship) was spacious, comfortable and had a balcony which was a bonus for a late-night sipping while the scenery slipped by.  There were 93 staterooms on board, all of them occupied but at no time did the ship feel crowded.  There was always plenty of room to sit; tables for dinner on the sunny Aquavit terrace were easy to find and the service was bright, breezy and friendly.

Avignon is a delightful city.  In the 14thcentury the papacy moved from Rome to Avignon and so there is a magnificent palace in the city centre. This period lasted just 67 years but it had a major influence on the city and its surroundings.  Naturally one palace wasn’t enough so a new ‘summer’ palace was built a few miles away, on top of a hill with a panoramic view of the Rhône and surrounding countryside.  The new palace of the Pope – the Châteauneuf-du-Pape – gave its name to the wines from that region.

Each day on board the ship Buri brought a different port, or at least a different set of excursions.  In Avignon I joined a visit to wine producer Famille Perrin, who not only produce excellent Châteauneuf-du-Pape, they also make the wine from Ch. Miraval, the property still owned by Brad and Angelina.  Even though this famous couple have split, the wine is still delicious. A tasting in the Perrin vineyard, a tour of the winery and a visit to the cellar with tasting was fascinating.

Afterwards we visited the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and climbed the hill to the now-ruined château.  I have been so many times to this region, but this was the first time I have got close to the actual château.

Another day I awoke to find that the ship had moored in Tournon, opposite the hill of Hermitage.  My excursion that day took me up to the top of the hill by bus, almost to the tiny chapel which acts as a monument to Gaspard de Sterimberg, the hermit who didn’t quite make it home after the crusades and who took up residence on this now-famous hill.  A small group of us walked down through the vineyards in the company of a guide who explained soils, vine training and the biodynamic viticulture used by some producers. We even encountered a horse-drawn plough, used on a small organic vineyard and afterwards there was a tasting of several wines at the local cooperative.

Our visit to Lyon lasted two days, which allowed visits to Beaujolais and the many food shops and markets of this gourmet capital of France.

This trip from Provence to Lyon was much more than a wine cruise.  There was a chance to see the lavender fields of Provence or take a painting class in Arles where Van Gogh did some of his most famous work.  There were visits to Roman ruins, a trip to see the ancient abbey of Cluny and a walking tour of the best food shops in Lyon.

 

The great advantage of a cruise is that you only unpack your suitcase once – there is no daily checking out and checking into various hotels.  The food on board was excellent and good quality house wines were included in the cruise package.  I was on a Silver drinks package which allowed me the choice of seriously good wines from the list at lunch and dinner. Wine drinkers will certainly be able to get good value from the extra cost (£120) of this Silver deal.

For this trip I was a guest of Viking River Cruises.  A similar trip costs from £2195 per person for cruises departing April 2019, including flights, transfers, meals on board the ship with beer, wines and soft drinks with lunch and dinner.

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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