Get a Crash Course on Bordeaux's Wines Via This Viking River Cruise

My homework began before I’d even packed my suitcase. Viking provided all passengers taking the Longship Forseti’s “Châteaux, Rivers & Wine” cruise with a list of suggested reading that spanned French literature, history, art, wine, and food. A few weeks later, collapsing onto the bed of my modern, Nordic-style stateroom, I paged through an introduction to Bordeaux’s wine regions while surveying the selection of in-room wine education videos. My head was already spinning with grape varieties, terroir, châteaux, and appellations. Would I ever be able to remember all this? Is it possible to flunk a cruise?

That’s when I made the wise decision to just grab a glass and have fun. For the next eight days, I drifted along on an elegant 443-foot oasis, joining 141 other passengers for a gentle navigation of the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, as well as the Gironde estuary where the two rivers meet. It was like a luxurious floating school with wine-soaked field trips. (I was delighted to discover that many of my fellow guests were retired teachers.) Our itinerary took us to the historic river towns of Cadillac, Libourne, Bourg, and Blaye, with shore excursions led by local expert guides to Sauternes, Périgord, Cognac, St-Émilion, and beyond. Each day, the ship’s chef offered a new menu of French specialties complemented by an extensive wine list with offerings from Bordeaux châteaux that became more familiar by the day.

How to Find the Best Wines from Bordeaux
Because of COVID-related travel disruptions, several of my fellow passengers had been waiting years to finally take this cruise, and they were determined to enjoy it. During our early-June sailing, we began each day with PCR tests before putting on our required masks. Still, we were a merry, vaccinated bunch, and as we sniffed, swirled, and sipped our way through Bordeaux, the traditional toast, “À votre santé!” felt more appropriate than ever.

Mansion at Château Prieuré-Lichine
Our onboard lectures, guided tastings, and travels among the vines were aimed at untangling the complexities of the region’s 65 AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) designations. Trips to the Left Bank, Right Bank, and Entre-Deux-Mers heightened our sensory experiences with the region’s varying soil conditions and microclimates, bringing the terroir to life. Even the “Viking Daily” newsletter, delivered each night to our cabins, provided tips on food-and-wine pairings and deciphering French wine labels. I enjoyed reading it while nibbling on a tiny canelé de Bordeaux (traditionally made with egg yolks discarded when egg whites were used to clarify wine) provided by the ship’s crew.

Our first winery visit — to the certified-organic Château Guiraud in Sauternes — dispelled any fears I had of snooty formality. The atmosphere at the premier grand cru classé estate was a friendly mix of tradition and modernity, with winemakers harnessing the transformative power of botrytis (noble rot) to produce a delicate, sweet wine that defied my expectation of syrupy Sauternes. Another day, I joined a small group on a trip to Christine and Pierre Chaminade’s Domaine Truffier de Saleix, where we followed the nose of Love, their Belgian Malinois dog, to unearth some of the elusive black truffles of Périgord. Afterward, we savored a lunch spread featuring truffles, walnuts, and goat cheese at the nearby Auberge de la Truffe before continuing to the village of St-Émilion. We arrived as the late-afternoon light turned to gold, with just enough time to stroll the cobblestone lanes.

Coasting Through the Côte d'Or: Burgundy Cruise
Another highlight was traveling to Cognac for a tour and lunch at Camus, owned by the same family for five generations, where we had a chance to mix our own special blend of Cognac to bottle and take home. Back in Bordeaux, I dashed along the quay to visit the Cité du Vin, an interactive museum extravaganza that pours out the whole story — from climate and terroir to vine, wine, bottle, transport, taste, and service. A whirlwind excursion to Médoc and Margaux — rolling past Château Latour and Château Lafite Rothschild, with a quick walk at Château Margaux — culminated in a tasting and tour at Château Prieuré-Lichine and a multicourse dinner at Château Kirwan that included lobster bisque, duck terrine, pâté en croûte, beef filet, and balsamic pear and chocolate cake, along with wine pairings.

On the final day of the cruise, my nerves were on edge when I joined a Wine Tasting Master Class at the Wine and Trade Museum of Bordeaux. To my relief, our teacher was funny, the tone was light, and I managed to bumble my way through. Afterward, we were each presented with a gilt-edged certificate of achievement. As I clutched my prize, I began pondering a return trip to France to continue my wine education — because learning never tasted so good. 

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