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A taste of the grape

As cruise lines offer an increasing variety of themed sailings and shipboard activities, more travelers are choosing to combine the vacation fun of a cruise with a theme that pleases their palates: wine cruises.

On a wine-themed cruise, participants get to taste many different wines, learn about them from winemakers and wine experts brought on board, drink wines paired with special meals, and visit wineries and vineyards ashore. Such cruises have been around for a couple of decades, but they’ve really picked up steam in recent years.

“Wine cruises have increased a thousandfold,” said Larry Martin, CEO of Food and Wine Trails, a pioneer company in packaging wine cruises that annually books about 1,000 guests on 15 to 20 wine sailings. Expedia Cruise Ship Centers, another travel agency, started offering wine cruises three years ago and now does six to eight a year, said owner Brian Murphy.

Cruise lines also are ramping up their offerings. AmaWaterways, which operates 11 cruise ships on European rivers, scheduled eight wine cruises this year but will double that number in 2013. Celebrity Cruises has initiated a series of seven new “immersive European Wine Cruises” this fall to coincide with the harvest season.

Avalon Waterways started wine cruises in 2006. “They took a while to catch on, but they’re really popular now,” said the line’s Jennifer Halboth.

And the trend is not just limited to wine travel specialists and cruise lines. Major retailer Costco, which has a travel arm, is now offering wine cruises, with two still ahead this year and six planned in 2013.

What’s the appeal of wine cruises?

For wine lovers, it’s the combination of having access to wine experts and uncommon wines with the pleasures of cruise travel and interesting destinations.

“The best experience was tasting so many different wines,” said Julie del Rico of Delray Beach, who went on a Food and Wine Trails wine cruise on Oceania Cruises last year. She said the group enjoyed a lot of tastings in Italy and visited different vineyards ashore. “We also had tastings in Slovenia and Croatia,” she added.

Michael MacDonald, who went with his wife Debbie on an Avalon Waterways cruise on the Rhine and Moselle Rivers last year, echoed del Rico’s sentiment that tasting different wines was a highlight. “I like Reislings, but I didn’t realize there were so many varieties,” said the Connecticut resident.

Most wine cruises are not organized or conducted by the cruise line itself, but by a group that makes all the arrangements for wine lectures, tastings, pairings, special visits to wineries ashore and other wine-related functions, and charges a fee in addition to the cruise fare for the wine package. Of course, only those who have paid the fee can attend these functions.

Food and Wine Trails, for instance, charges $300 to $400 above the cruise cost for those participating in the wine events, said Martin.

Some cruise lines do put together true wine cruises, and those may be open to all passengers at no extra cost. “Our wine cruises are open to all on board our ships, not just a private group,” said Rudi Schreiner, founder and CEO of AmaWaterways.

On the other hand, some sailings that are labeled “wine cruises” or “food and wine cruises” may offer tastings and pairings but may not go in much depth as far as wine education. Before booking a wine cruise, prospective passengers should find out exactly what wine-related events are scheduled.

Europe is a prime locale for wine cruises, especially the continent’s rivers, which bring passengers close to many storied vineyards and wineries.

The Mediterranean also is a favorite for such cruises, but full wine-themed cruises also are offered in regions where no wines are made, such as the Caribbean and Alaska.

A winemaker or winery owner often sails with the group, bringing his products on board for participants to taste. On del Rico’s cruise, for instance, Holly and Amy Turner of Three Rivers Winery in Washington state were in charge of the group.

Tastings on board wine cruises usually involve more than perfunctory sips. They may be vertical tastings (like the last 10 years of a wine), component tastings (trying out each component of a blended wine) or library tastings (retrospective samples), Martin said. “For example, we had tastings from each of 25 years of Chateau Montelena on a recent cruise.”

Shore excursions for wine-cruise guests are designed to enhance the total wine experience. “We have private tours, tastings and four- or five-course dinners at wineries ashore, usually with the winery owner or winemaker,” said Martin. Among wineries visited on Food and Wine Trails cruises are Domaine Janisse at Chateauneuf-du-Pape, France, and Azienda Sorrentino, on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius in Italy.

River cruisers in Europe have easy access to vineyards and wineries ashore. AmaWaterways’ wine cruise passengers, for instance, tour the Bergweiler Winery in Bernkastel on the Moselle River, the Loisium Winery at Krems on the Danube, and the Berg Rottland Winery at Rudesheim on the Rhine. Among other sites, Avalon’s wine cruisers visit Maison Bouachon, a vineyard in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape region of France.

Depending on the particular cruise, Celebrity’s wine cruisers might visit such wineries as Chateau Giscours in Bordeaux, Chateau de la Grille in the Loire Valley of France, and El Fabulista Cellars in Spain’s Rioja region.

Visits like these may offer an opportunity to try uncommon wines. Guests on a Food and Wine Trails wine cruise on an Oceania sailing next year will tour the Ornellaia Winery in Tuscany, which received a perfect 100 score from Wine Spectator. And on her Oceania wine cruise, Julie del Rico got to taste a red wine called Sassicaia on a shore excursion to Bolgheri, Italy, and liked it so well that she searched back home until she found a restaurant that stocks it.

As wine buffs tend to be more affluent, most (but not all) wine-themed cruises are offered aboard upscale or premium cruise lines, among them Crystal, Silversea, Regent, Oceania, Azamara and Celebrity, as well as some European river lines.

There is no comprehensive list of wine cruises. Many travel agencies and some cruise lines offer them. Search the Internet for “wine cruises” and you will see dozens of offerings. Cruise lines themselves may not have information on wine cruises on their ships that were organized by outside groups.