A wine-themed river cruise always sounds so right, so seductive, no matter what the season.
There are many wine-themed cruises offered from numerous river cruise brands, but there is something unique abut Ama Waterway’s wine-themed cruise, probably because the DNA of AmaWaterways exudes a unique attention to culinary detail that goes beyond the tasting of wine and the creation of cuisine. This wine-themed cruise also becomes an adventure in culinary cruising, combining onboard international wine experts that often transform the guests into burgeoning oenophiles and sous-chefs.
Our experience on an AmaWaterways wine-themed cruise, even though it was months ago, still resonates in both mind and taste, mainly because of how the wine education, and the destination experiences were distilled into the terroir of our souls, and never left.
We traveled up the Rhine, from Basel to Amsterdam – basically, learning as we went, about the wine created in the regions of France, Germany, and in the unique Alsatian region, a true blend of Germany and France. This was due to proximity –the Rhine separates the countries—but was also due to battles and occupations, dating back to the Middle Ages. What remained, and, one could also say, the only victors of these multiple peccadilloes, were the vineyards themselves that combined the soft nose of German wine with the velvety finish of French.
Our noted wine expert was Robert Dickinson, who, each evening spoke on the viticulture and the diverse terroirs of the areas we were visiting. Mr. Dickinson, a retired cruise line executive is also a renowned wine expert with a 20,000 bottle wine collection in his primary home in Miami. In addition to his daily presentations about the wines, beers and cheese of the region, was the sharing of the tastings produced in the areas.
One of the most memorable presentations, prior to our visiting the Alsace region was his talk on the diverse history of that region, which became more relevant as we tasted the great wine produced there. Mr. Dickinson explained that the history of the Alsatian wine-growing began during the time of the Romans, and in the Middle Ages, Alsatian wines became most famous and most expensive in Europe.
The vines were protected by the Vosges Mountains to the West, which was on the French side of the Rhine. It was there that the Alsace vineyards benefitted from a dry climate and late afternoon sun, both ensuring a slow maturation of the grapes. We learned there are seven primary grapes in Alsace –six white and one red –as Pinot Noir is the only red and is used largely in Crémant production. Bottles with long, tapered necks are usually Alsatian.
And with all that in mind and taste, we traveled to Riquwihr, a colorful Alsatian town, one that was near the Sparr Vineyard and winery, our first viticulture exploration. This winery was, arguably, the most historic as it had been in functional existence, since 1680.
We walked along the vineyards, and were treated to a multi-Alsatian wine tasting that included a Crémant d’Alsace, a sparkling white, then, a Gerwurztraminer, which tasted like a cool, Summer morning. I discovered later that the Sparr Gerwurz had won a major award at a European Wine competition in 2017. Both wines, plus a few others – a great Sylvaner and a Pinot Gris — were complimented by an Alsatian Tarte Flambée, or Flammekuche –a rectangular shaped piece of bread dough, topped with crème fraîche, thinly sliced raw onions, and lardons or small strips of bacon.
With the wine and the Tarte, we tasted the Alsatian fusion of nature and culture, the combination of German and French. And, though the official language of Alsace is French, most everyone speaks German also. Walking in Riquewihr, we came upon a shop that sold only gingerbread –classic Lebkuchen, not originally French, but who pays attention, when the scent of fresh gingerbread is in the air? We also came upon a shop that sold Fois Gras Alsacienne alongside fresh German Sauerkraut. Hybrid essences often create such cultural surprises!
Back on the Ama vessel, we sailed on to Strasbourg, founded in 1262, the capita of the Alsace region. Mr. Dickinson expanded our awareness on not only more discussion of Alsatian terroirs, but also of Alsatian cheese, especially Munster, a cheese that had been produced since the 11th century in the Alsace region. It is made on both sides of the Vosges Mountains, and is derived from the word Monastère, or monastery.
Mr. Dickinson suggested that after we saw the major sights of this great city, we eat at one of the excellent Alsatian restaurants. But first, we saw the Notre Dame de Strasbourg Cathedral, in a cloudy morning light. The cornerstone was laid in 1015, with a completed outer façade reputed to be the greatest compilation of images of the Middle Ages anywhere. In addition, we admired the statue of Johannes Gutenberg, founder and creator of the Gutenberg printing press. It was in 1440 when he was living in Strasbourg that Gutenberg unveiled the secret of his printing press system.
Seeing these ancient yet living creations, we followed the advice of Mr. Dickinson, and went to a small Café near the Cathedral, called the Brasserie Rohan – that had some exceptional Alsatian food with some Alsatian bière.
We knew that Alsace, in addition to a renowned vineyard area, was also a hops growing area. So, along with our Knacken et Choucroute (hot dogs and sauerkraut but these are Alsatian dishes also) we had Alsatian BEER. Traditionally, beer was brewed in the monasteries, then independent breweries became an official trade in Strasbourg in 1268.
It was such a substantial day in Strasbourg, as we learned about beer, ancient cathedrals and Mr. Gutenberg. But more education awaited us the next day, as Mr. Dickinson discussed what was in viticulturally in store within the coming days.. It would be more Germany, beginning in Rudesheim. We had the choice of taking a Vineyards cable car, seeing the beautiful Rudesheimer vineyards from above, or going to the to the Bassenheimer Hof Wine Cellar, with a morning trip to a coffee house, serving Rudesheimer Coffee.
Rudesheim, we learned, is actually named Rüdesheim am Rhein, and is known known for the production of Riesling wines. At Bassenheimer Hof cellar, built in 1647, we tasted more wines of the area: Riesling, of course, and other white Rhine wines – Liebfraumilch, Grauburgunder, and Mosel. But what really woke us from our wonderful wine haze was the Rudesheimer Coffee: a combination of strong black coffee, Asbach (a specialty of Rudesheim, also) Brandy, heaps of whipped cream, and chocolate curls on top. Rudesheimers drink this in the morning and are awake and alive all day, and into the night, no doubt.
Toward the culmination of our journey, we were treated to the classic Chaine du Rotisseurs Paired Wine dinner, with Mr. Dickinson explaining the relationships of the wines to the courses. AmaWaterways and President Rudi Schreiner had been inducted into La Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, a prestigious international gastronomic society dedicated to fine cuisine.
Founded in Paris to honor the royal Guild of Goose Roasters (whose origins date back to the 13th century,) it is the oldest and largest food and wine society in the world. Membership to La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs is by invitation only and is extended to those possessing world-class culinary acumen. AmaWaterways is one of a very few river cruise members.
At the end of our journey, having learned about the terroirs of the Rhine Gorge, ate exceptional meals with unique wine and food pairings, experienced the deep beauty of the vineyards of the Alsace countryside, did walking tours of Cologne, bike tours of Speyer, we felt fulfilled. The distillation of spirit and spirits in these areas allowed us to consider our voyage as an education of the senses, a pilgrimage into soul and heritage, distilling and remembering the true heart of the Rhine.