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Exploring The Oenophile Utopia of Bordeaux with Viking River Cruises

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When we think of gourmet food and fine wine, most will instantly think of France. And when we think of where to find the finest wine in France, we of course think Bordeaux. It was Napoleon III who first organized the region’s wine chateaus in 1855 and designated their land as unique in their ability to produce the world’s most exquisite wines. Viking River Cruises takes guest on an eight day epicurean adventure of fine wine and exquisite dining while visiting the ports and lands of this culinary capital of the world.

The Bordeaux region is filled with picturesque port towns and charming villages dispersed between rich farmlands, forests and vast vineyards. These lands are connected by the winding Garonne River in a place called the Aquitaine which was once Europe’s riches kingdom. The passengers aboard the Viking cruise ship Forseti on the Chateaux, Rivers & Wine cruise explored a number of these medieval fortressed villages with walking tours narrated by highly knowledgeable guides who were from the area.

The Viking Forseti is an ideal ship to explore the waterways of the Aquitaine peninsula. Viking has built 40 of these grand vessels that can accommodate up to 190 guests for river cruises such as this. Viking Cruise line’s formula is quite successful by offering mid-priced cruises with premium accommodations, meals and experiences in the most fascinating locations around the world.

One of the region’s exquisite hillside villages is St Emillion. A 12th-century church with ceilings filled with precious frescoes overlooks the ancient town of red terracotta roofs, golden limestone buildings, and winding coble stone streets. Cadillac is another charming fortressed town with an imposing 17th-century castle and sky-high Saint Blaise collegiate church. Blayne, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a fascinating town visited by the Foreseti; its key attribute is the imposing citadel which was a strategic fort during the reign of King Louis XIV. Other interesting towns visited were the French wine-making capital Libourne and Bourg, another fortressed medieval town.

The old world towns and villages were a delight to explore, but the wine-lovers on the ship, with wine glass in hand, were ready for an exploration of another nature. The cruise offers a number of experiences to get close to the where some of the finest wines emanate, interact with the wine makers, and of course, partake in the vin. The ships was filled with wine enthusiasts, budding oenophiles and those who’d be more likely to have a Budweiser than a Château Lafite Rothschild, Grand Cru, Premiere Class.

The passengers’ wine knowledge was enhanced by a wine tasting course on the ship, where guests learned about the science of wine and understanding tannin, acidity, fruitiness, alcohol levels as well as looking at color clarity and other factors that distinguish good wine. The vinicultural term terroir was examined, which is the concept that the qualities and location of the land, as well as the types of fruit and the way it is farmed, give it characteristics that cannot be created anywhere else, thus making it special and unique.

The winery tours take guests through the nearby wineries such as Château Paloumey in Ludon-Medoc and Château Léoville-Poyferre in the Saint-Julien appellation. In each, guests explored the process of how the wine is made, visited the barrel rooms and then enjoyed a wine tasting and discussion of these exquisite wines.

The ships guests had a chance to walk the vineyards of Chateau Marquis de Terme in Margaux to understand the distinct characteristics of Margaux’s Merlots and Cabernet Francs, followed by an interactive wine tasting experience.

In Sauternes, the visit was to Château de Myrat, and included a tour by the granddaughter of the wineries founder as it has been in the family for generations. Guests learned about the Noble Rot or Botrytis, which is a beneficial form of a grey fungus that causes the grapes skin to wither, and as a result, the juice to be more concentrated with sugar, thus giving the wine a higher alcohol content. This is found in Semillon, Sauvignon blanc and Muscatel grapes.

The wine tasting experiences culminated in a dinner in the stunning Chateau Kirwan. The chateaux produces some of the top wines from the Margaux appellation, and was classified as a prestigious Third Growth in the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855. The gourmet dinner was held in the grand hall of the chateau with its period décor from the 18th century.  Throughout the meal, the host from Chateau Kirwan shared the description of each wine furthering our education followed by the chef who presented each dish. This wonderful affair allowed the Viking Forseti guests to appreciate the significance of fine food and wine on another level.

Beyond the wonderful trips and experiences at the wineries and walking the historic villages there were other adventures to unfold.

As we all know, anyone with a single taste bud loves truffles. This rare and somewhat mysterious delectable fungus are difficult to find and cultivate, but France has been at the forefront of the truffle industry since the 1800s. The tradition continues with a lovely truffle farmer in the Perigod region of Bordeaux. The host worked his two spunky border collies to hunt for the rare, elusive black Perigod truffle. Then with his trusty digging tool and wicker basket, he collected these ugly, but tasty culinary treasures. He even let the guests from the cruise get in on the digging. Black truffles grow near oak and hazelnut trees and typically the soil and climate that is good for wine is also good for truffles. After the hunt and discussion, the group was invited into his 18th-century, medieval home for a home-cooked meal of truffles with eggs, truffles with pasta, and the coup de gras, truffles with vanilla ice cream and caramel. Ooh La La!

One of the most exciting experiences was a day on the Arachon Bay which is in the Bordeaux region along the coast. The guests on the sightseeing boat alternated between sitting on deck while snapping photos or just feeling the sun on their faces and fresh sea air in their lungs.

Along the coastline there are beautiful seaside towns peppered with tony villas and summer homes of France's well-to-do. This place is the anti-St Tropez and more like Cape Cod than Miami Beach, and is where France’s high society go for down time in the summer.

Jutting from the seafloor are the weathered sticks of wood that appeared as a petrified forest. These are oyster farms, and Arachon Bay is known to produce the finest oysters in all of France. The tour visited the humble home of Frederick, whose family has been farming oysters for over 100 years. Each Sunday he takes is harvest to Paulliac and sells it to the top restaurants from the area and Paris.

Viking’s guests then sampled his just-caught, just-shucked oysters. There’s no hot sauce or fancy accoutrements necessary for these fresh-from-the-sea delicacies; just the raw oysters and a squeeze of lemon juice are pure heaven. With a glass of chilled white wine, guests toasted to the joie de vivre and how good life is at that very moment on the deck of Frederick’s rustic oyster farm in the bay of Arachon.

The next stop was Cap Ferret and L ‘Escale, a famed seaside bistro popular with locals, yachties and tourists. This is a destination unto itself known for serving fresh-from-the-sea delicacies such as steaming blue mussels, calamari with spices and olives, and light and flaky, absolutely delicious, grilled white cod. And of course, an obligatory bottomless glass of chilled rosé. This is the quintessential way to enjoy Bordeaux’s Arachon Bay.

After those long days of exploration and heavenly food and wine experiences, it was great to come back to the creature comforts of the Viking Cruise ship Foreseti. At first glance you realize how absolutely long the ship is. In the front of the ship you'll find the common areas of the Observation Lounge and bar, and the Aquavit Terrace with outdoor alfresco dining area. There is a sun deck that runs the length of the ship which is perfect for walking a few laps, taking in some sun, watching the scenery go by or just snoozing in the fresh air after reading a chapter or two of your paperback.

The accommodations have all the amenities one would expect in a fine hotel. There are several categories of cabins, from standard staterooms to spacious and extremely well-appointed Explorer Suites with separate living room and bedroom with a wraparound balcony. The Veranda Staterooms are exceptional as well with comfortable bedding and a well-appointed bathroom with shower. The rooms also have a lovely balcony with chairs perfect for sitting outside and taking in all the beautiful sites along the river.

The ship’s dining was a wonderful culinary experience as well. Guests dined nightly on a five-course meal from the a la carte menu consisting of authentic Bordeaux dishes created by inspired chefs from locally-sourced ingredients. Other options included American traditional menu options. For a casual dining experience, the Aquavit Terrace served more modest fare in a relaxed al fresco environment.

And guests never had to worry about getting bored. There were informative port talks as well as some fun night time entertainment. The engaging ship director also entertained guests with trivia and dancing nights. There were also folkloric shows and musicians playing and singing music from the Bordeaux region.

For lovers of great wine, French culture and history, the Viking Chateaux, Rivers & Wine cruise is c'est magnifique and an experience that will long be cherished after the luggage is unpacked at home.

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