Unique Wine Cruise Destinations Draw in a Younger Crowd
Pick a region anywhere in the world, and there's a wine cruise to celebrate it.
Oui, France remains the epicenter of wine tourism, but cruise lines are developing new itineraries to please the palate of travelers hungry for a wine experience in destinations they haven't already explored.
Some of the itineraries may surprise: Alaska, the Amazon, Asia. Wine cruises in the grape-growing regions of the Pacific Northwest and Portugal are becoming hugely popular and often sell out. Croatia, Greece, Romania and Bulgaria also are getting a hard look by the cruise industry as possible wine-focused destinations.
What's driving the surge in wine cruises? Experts point to the rise of wine clubs and increased exposure to quality vino; a lifestyle that values food and drink; and the popularity of Food Network and foodie movies ("The Hundred-Foot Journey," "Chef," "Burnt"). It's a win-win for cruise lines because these cruises typically attract younger travelers, presenting a growth opportunity.
"If you look at the baby boomers and Gen X and Y, they are all into food and wine; millennials eat out more than any group on earth," says Rick Kaplan, president of Premier River Cruises in Los Angeles. "It is the demographic and psychographic bull's-eye for today's cruise lines. There are opportunities out there now to grow the market based on food and wine."
Consider AmaWaterways, which helped pioneer wine cruises on Europe's rivers. The line offered 19 wine cruises in 2015, a figure that jumped to 43 last year. In 2017, 47 wine cruises are on offer. Next year that number will increase to 50. Notably, regular cruise itineraries on AmaWaterways attract, on average, travelers in their early 60s. On wine cruises, that demographic falls by a full decade.
Passengers on a Pacific Northwest wine cruise with Un-Cruise Adventures take a walk through a vineyard. (Rick Duval / Un-Cruise Adventures)
"Wine and food is the No. 1 theme all over the place, and travelers want choices," according to Kristin Karst, the company's executive vice president and co-owner. Under development: the launch of two wine cruises in Vietnam and Cambodia on the Mekong River in 2018 hosted by Christopher Silva, CEO of St. Francis Winery in Santa Rosa, Calif. The line is also considering wine-focused itineraries in Myanmar and on the lower Danube in southern Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.
There are two types of wine cruises — those hosted by the cruise lines for anyone interested onboard and those hosted by U.S. winemakers for members of their wine clubs. What you can expect: wine tastings onboard, wine and food pairings, educational seminars and, if you are in a grape-growing region, tours and tastings at local wineries. Those led by winemakers tend to do a deeper dive — as an example, comparing their own wines in blind tastings with those from the region they're visiting and exquisite winemakers' dinners.
Where in the world do you want your wine cruise to take you? Don't count out the French wine regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Provence. They're famous for good reason. But if you're looking for an alternative, here's a sampling of what's out there.
Portugal is the new "it" destination — and no wonder. It's more affordable than other countries in Western Europe. It's got a year-round temperate climate. And its food and wines have made it a magnet for epicures.
Cruise lines added the Douro River to their itineraries a couple of years ago — and they routinely sell out. Space on cruises this year is already tight. As Jennifer Raezer, developer of the Approach Guides wine app, notes: "It's definitely up and coming. It's easy to get there from the East Coast, and people have done France, done Italy. Portugal is next on the list. It's this new, almost unexplored, region of Europe, so there's an adventure side too. And you can taste great, great wines for under $10 a bottle, unheard of anywhere else in Europe."
Cruise lines with Douro itineraries include Grand Circle, Viking, Uniworld, Scenic, Emerald Waterways and AmaWaterways.
Winemaking in Oregon and Washington has surged in the last decade with many of the region's 1,550-plus wineries, often boutique operations, producing award-winning products. Pacific Northwest wine country is beautiful — ranging from the dry, golden hillsides of eastern Washington to the lush, green slopes of Oregon.
Cruise lines began launching wine-focused cruises in 2015 and 2016, and they've added more departures this year. Un-Cruise Adventures, a pioneer in the concept, is featuring eight Rivers of Wine itineraries on its 88-passenger SS Legacy, a replica of a turn-of-the-century steamer. Sailings include an onboard sommelier and guest wine expert, winery tours and tastings, and educational seminars. Wine cruises on the Columbia and Snake rivers, traditionally known for their Lewis and Clark itineraries, are also offered by American Queen Steamboat Company and American Cruise Lines. Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic has no wine-themed cruises, but it does feature a winery tour and a robust onboard offering of wines from the region. The season runs from March to November.
Chris Arora, a sommelier, discusses wine aboard the SS Legacy. (Rick Duval / Un-Cruise Adventures)
Wine cruises don't just take place in grape-growing regions — hence itineraries on waterways in Alaska, coastal Maine and the Amazon.
Larry Martin, founder and chief program designer of California-based Food & Wine Trails, has produced wine-focused itineraries for select winemakers and lines like Uniworld, Oceania and Celebrity for years. This year, for the first time, the company is expanding its itineraries to destinations that don't grow grapes.
"You've got to keep it fresh," says Martin. "And the demand is there. The baby boomers, the majority consumers of high-end wine, grew up in a world of (seeking pleasure). Fine dining and wine is part and parcel of what they look for. They buy trips based on what they're going to eat and drink."
One of the cruises Martin designed for wine-club members this year, featuring California's Martinelli Winery & Vineyards, will sail on Oceania's 684-passenger Regatta from Seattle to Alaska and back. The other, highlighting Napa Valley's Bob Williamson and his Ideology Cellars, will be a fall foliage journey on Regatta's sister ship, Insignia, from Montreal to New York. Williamson will present his own wines and share favorite Napa cabernets from his personal cellar. On average, winemakers host about 70 wine-club members along with Food & Wine Trails fans on each cruise, with wine-focused shore excursions limited to between 16 and 30 people.
The coast of Maine is the setting for a wine-tasting cruise aboard the 146-year-old schooner Stephen Taber. (Stephen Taber)
Other upcoming wine cruises creating a buzz include Aqua Expedition's four-night, chef-hosted cruises in October and November on the Amazon aboard the 32-passenger Aria Amazon, as well as European-based Goolets' sailings to wineries on the Croatian islands of Brac, Hvar and Vis. Cruises on gulets, traditional two- and three-masted wooden vessels, commonly have five to six cabins and include a captain, chef, sailor and hostess. Closer to home, the 146-year-old schooner Stephen Taber, one of America's oldest commercial schooners, will sail the Maine Coast highlighting a different wine region in the world each night.
"Wine-themed cruises are really connecting," says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic. "Wine is universal. It doesn't matter if you are in Bordeaux or the Douro Valley, grapes are grapes. The other thing that's really special is whether you're on a big or small ship, it makes the ship more cozy. You're cruising with people who share your passion, which brings people together in new ways."