Wine is already a hallmark of many European and American river cruises for one reason: Most waterways flow right through the continent's prime grape-growing regions, plus many river cruise lines offer complimentary drinks at lunch and dinner as a value add.
But as river lines continue to expand their fleets and look for new passengers to fill their ships, specific themed sailings for wine-lovers have become a savvy way to lure oenophile first timers, many of whom might not have considered a cruise vacation before.
Wine cruises generally operate with the following guidelines: A river cruise line partners with a vineyard or wine expert, who will deliver expert lectures and tastings during the cruise. This winery also usually sells a certain amount of wine to the ship, to be used for special programs or dinners. In return, the river lines receive access to the mailing list for the vineyard, which promotes the cruise to their wine clubs. On these cruises, however, you will still have access to all of the wine programming, even if you don't book through a specific travel agent.
Another way to tap into a wine cruise is through a full or partial charter. In this scenario, a participating vineyard or winemaker has a certain number of onboard rooms available for oenophiles who book through a third party. Participants will usually have their own wine-themed activities, independent of the rest of the passengers onboard.
A few things to note about a wine cruise. First, you don't have to be an expert to have fun. Most passengers enjoy wine, but few were at the level of fanatic or collector (although if you don't like wine at all, the cruise might seem dull). Second, the demographic skews younger than a traditional river cruise, with more passengers in their 40s and 50s than you'd normally see.
And finally? A wine cruise might be one of the best vacations if you have a group of wine-loving friends. You get many of the benefits of a vineyard visit, without having to drive home. We'll raise a glass to that.
Best Time for Wine River Cruises
Wine-themed river cruises take place most often during the shoulder season, as that's when river cruise lines have more difficulty filling their ships. But as popularity has grown, you'll find some now taking place during the summer as well.
The best time to take a wine cruise is undoubtedly the harvest season in September and October, as your cruise line might have excursions that take advantage of local festivals. Beginning in November, the weather in central Europe can become gray and chilly; without the cheer of the Christmas Markets to warm you, sailings in this month can be bleak.
March and April river cruises can also be rainy, and that's also when Europe's rivers are most susceptible to high water, due to snow melt in the Alps. In France's Rhone region, the chilly mistral wind can also make spring cruises quite blustery.
Within the United States, the Pacific Northwest has its best weather after July 4 through the end of September. Other months can be extremely drizzly and chilly.
Wine River Cruise Lines
River cruise lines that offer themed cruises for wine-lovers include AmaWaterways, American Queen Steamboat Company, Avalon Waterways and Vantage. You'll also find chartered wine sailings on Crystal Mozart and Uniworld. Scenic and Tauck do not have wine itineraries per se, but both offer culinary river cruises that include a strong wine component.
Wine River Cruise Itineraries
It's not surprising that most wine cruises choose river itineraries that border famous grape-growing regions. That's because in addition to the wines provided by the partner vineyard, the cruise line usually offers shore excursions and culinary experiences that tap into local varietals, so you get the best of both worlds.
Bordeaux: As France's premier wine region, Bordeaux is a slam dunk for wine-lovers. Wine cruises here generally focus on red wine -- the cabernet sauvignon and merlots that make the area famous -- as well as the sauternes sweet wines. River cruises typically sail round trip from Bordeaux, stopping in Cadillac, Pauillac and Libourne.
Danube: Cruises that run on the Danube spend most of their time in Austria, which is known for Riesling and Gruner Veltliner. Stops include Vienna, Budapest, Melk and Linz, the latter a gateway to Salzburg or Cesky Krumlov.
Douro: In Portugal, the Douro River is famous for the red grapes used to make the country's famous fortified wine, port. Highlights include a day in Salamanca and other stops at wine estates.
Pacific Northwest: The main region for U.S. wine-themed river cruises, the Pacific Northwest draws connoisseurs of Washington Syrahs and Oregon pinot noirs. Stops include the coastal city of Astoria, creative Portland and the gorgeous Columbia River Gorge.
Rhone: Wine cruises on the Rhone River delve into varietals used for the area's blends, such as Syrah and Grenache, as well as the Gamay grape used in Beaujolais wines. Expect stops at popular Provence towns such as Arles, Avignon and Lyon.
Seine: France's Seine doesn't flow through a wine region, but that hasn't stopped river cruise lines from offering wine-themed cruises along it. Stops include Rouen, Giverney and the Normandy D-Day beaches.
Wine Cruise Highlights
Here are some activities you might find on a wine-themed cruise.
Tastings and lectures: It's fairly normal for there to be at least one wine tasting on river cruises that travel through a famous region. But on a wine theme cruise, you will have multiple tastings, many centered on the visiting vineyard that has brought bottles onboard, just for the occasion. Or you might have a tasting that compares a U.S. varietal with its European counterpart, i.e., a Bordeaux put up against a California cabernet sauvignon. Expect, too, lectures about the best way to taste wine or ones on even more esoteric topics such as biodynamic farming.
Wine Paired Dinner: Wine complements food, and most wine-themed cruises include at least one dinner where each course is paired with a matching vintage.
Wine Outings in Port: On your wine-themed cruise, you might find extra vineyard visits or an outing to a local chateau, estate or wine cellar. These give passengers the chance to learn more about local grapes and how the local culture perceives wine.
Wine Loving Passengers: Finally, your favorite part of a wine-themed cruise might be simply the fact that you're cruising with others who share the same passion.
Wine Cruise Tips
Expertise is not required. Afraid that your swirl isn't up to snuff? Don't be. Contrary to popular belief, wine-lovers tend to be more social than snobby, and few cruisers have advanced degrees, experience or significant cellars of their own.
But you should drink. That being said, a wine cruise is not the best option for you if you don't consume alcohol or are offended by those who do.
Choose your winery carefully. Because wine-themed cruises draw heavily from the participating winery's email list, the passengers onboard will likely represent that vineyard's demographic. If you're liberal, for example, a laid-back winery from Oregon's Willamette Valley might be a better fit than one that's based in Virginia's Horse Country. Likewise, if you tend to shop in the budget aisle for your wine, you might feel out of place on a cruise hosted by a high-end vineyard where bottles start at $50.