Sail through a region synonymous with fine wine and gastronomy post-lockdown on a Bordeaux river cruise.
I waited with bated breath as the expert looked down and studied the evidence. After a few seconds, he declared “you are strong and vivacious”, before turning to my friend with the verdict “rebellious, just like a teenager”.
It was akin to fortune-telling, and while I would have been quite flattered by the description had it been about me, he was actually reading the label on a bottle rather than my palm.
A French river cruise is invariably a treat on the food and wine front, but the informative and fun-filled visit to a Cognac house took things a step further. Instead of exiting through the obligatory gift shop to purchase liquid souvenirs, I came back with a unique memento – a bespoke bottle of the famous brandy that I’d blended myself.
We had spent the morning at Camus, founded 150 years ago and the largest house to still be run by the founding family, now with fifth-generation Cyril Camus at the helm.
Breakfast was only a relatively distant memory, but encouraged by our affable and humorous tutor Frederic Dezauzier we dutifully swirled, smelled and sipped the contents of the four glasses set in front of each participant.
Produced in four of the six strictly controlled zones or crus that make up the Cognac region, and all with very different characteristics, these formed the building blocks for our finished bottle.
Using a totally unscientific system, based largely on Frederic’s lyrical descriptions, I went over to the barrels and filled a measuring cylinder with different quantities of each cognac, gently spun them around in a flask and funneled the contents into a bottle. Then we queued up to write the labels and have the bottles sealed.
Clutching our precious cargo we made our way back to Viking Forseti to continue the cruise line’s ‘Châteaux, Rivers & Wine’ river cruise that starts and finishes in Bordeaux, the epicentre of one of the world’s greatest wine-producing regions. It was a wonderful way to get a real taste – in every sense of the word – of this scenic and cultural corner of south-west France.
River cruising is one of the most relaxing ways to travel. You unpack once, arrive in a new place each day and there’s always something to see. It’s also easy to explore under your own steam as river ships moor in city and town centres, so shops and sights are usually only a short walk away.
Our journey took us along the Garonne and Gironde rivers, the latter technically an estuary. They wind their way through picturesque landscapes lined with towns and regions that read like a wine list – Medoc, Sauternes, Margaux, Saint-Julien and Pauillac, to name just a few.
In between vineyard visits and tastings our excursions included the charming UNESCO-listed town of Blaye, where we scaled the cobbled streets to take in panoramic views from the top of the 17th-century citadel.
That evening, the Forseti’s chef made use of Blaye’s springtime seasonal treat, local asparagus, and menus throughout the week offered the chance to sample themed regional cuisine. But whenever you visit you can always pick up a box of Blaye’s other speciality to take home, the delicately flavoured almond pralines.
The next day we arrived in the fortified port town of Libourne, on the confluence of the Isle and Dordogne rivers, and spent the afternoon in nearby Saint-Emilion, exploring the small town’s big surprise, a cavernous underground church that is the largest of its kind in Europe.
Following this, there was time for another wine tasting and by now we were getting pretty well acquainted with the attributes of the cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes, which are the main driving forces behind Bordeaux wine.
A daily excursion is included in the price of the cruise and there are also optional paid-for trips, such as a visit to Bergerac, renowned for its truffles, and the cognac-blending masterclass.
Life onboard is equally enjoyable. Viking’s elegant Scandinavian-designed Longships are tastefully decorated and cleverly designed. The comfortable cabins have plenty of storage, wide-screen TVs and a fridge – useful if you want to bring back some sauvignon blanc or semillon to enjoy on the ship.
Unlike sea-going cruises where there are strict rules about smuggling drinks on board, there’s no danger of having your wine confiscated on a Viking cruise.
Complimentary wine, beer and soft drinks are also provided with lunch and dinner, making mealtimes very convivial. The food throughout the cruise was excellent, with plenty of choice and attentive service.
One of my favourite times of day was the early evening when we’d gather on the open-air Aquavit Terrace, a standout feature on the Viking Longships. With a suitable cocktail to hand, we’d chat about the day and watch the blood-red sun dip behind the vineyards before heading in for dinner.
The last day was spent wandering around elegant Bordeaux, stopping to admire the ‘water mirror’ that reflects the grand 18th century royal square. I returned home with my prized consignment of cognac packed safely in a wooden box in my suitcase.
Now I just have to wait three months for the flavours to develop before I can drink it. But if my ‘own label’ is a winner, I can reorder the exact blend from Camus. Now that really is a way to make holiday memories last a lifetime.
Get on board
Viking River Cruises 7-night ‘Châteaux, Rivers & Wine’ river cruise, from £1,595, including all meals, wine with lunch and dinner, flights, transfers, excursions and tips, vikingrivercruises.co.uk