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Free wine on a river cruise: what you need to know

Wine lovers dream…cruising on the river with vineyards lining the hillsides
Photo from IGLU Cruise.

Twice we have taken river cruises in wine regions of Europe in the hopes of having interesting wines that were included at no charge with the meals. Following is a brief overview of our wine experience on these river cruses, but first here’s a little background. Our first experience was on a Viking cruse on the Danube river (see our post Amsterdam to Budapest river trip) that went through the Rhine regions of Austria and Germany. The second was an Avalon cruse through Burgundy and the Rhone Valley. Both served “local” wines at lunch and dinner with no additional charge and in all honesty you were served as much as you wanted without hesitation. Both cruises were about the same number of days, stopped at cities and towns that have strong appeal to wine lovers and both had outstanding shore guides, similar accommodations, wait staff and menus, but comparable Avalon cruises cost about 25% more than the Viking cruises. The tangible differences we discerned were the Avalon boat appeared to be newer, it had much better public space, daily evening entertainment and the chef was definitely a little more creative. So with that said here are a few observations about the wines.

    1. Wines served on both cruise lines consisted of one or two brands produced locally and we quickly realized they were inexpensive and supermarket quality as we had expected. However, here’s the punchline. In the Rhine region the company could purchase very drinkable Rhine wines (e.g. Gunner Veltliner) for a low cost. On the Burgundy/Rhone trip the wines served probably cost about the same amount, but you simply can’t get the same drinkable quality Burgundy or Rhone wines for that low price. As a result, on the Rhine cruise we never had free wines we couldn’t drink, but often did on the Burgundy/Rhone cruise.

    2. Having been in the position of not liking the wines provided by the ship (whether free or on the ships wine list) we began purchasing wines at the ports and bringing it aboard to drink instead of what was provided. (See Selecting wine on the Cunard Queen Mary 2, or How to find the best value wine on a Cunard cruise. for a description of our solution to this problem on a Cunard world cruise.) In this internet age we found it very easy to locate wine stores when we went ashore, then bring wines back and have them with our meals. On the Rhine cruise we were spending between $7.00 and $15.00 per bottle, but drinking outstanding Austria and German wines. On the Burgundy/Rhone cruise we spent between $18.00 to $80.00 and had some of the best French wines available. Neither of these cruise lines had a corking fee so we could drink our locally purchased wines with our meals and enjoy wines that cost considerably more in the U.S.

    3. To be honest we have a little bias on this subject. We really enjoy having different wines. On the boats they served the same two or three wines every couple of days. So buying wine at local shops opened a whole new dimension to the variability of the wine we drank. For example when we went into the wine shops in many cases we had never heard of most of the local producers primarily because many of the wines are not imported into the U.S. In addition, with the local wine merchant’s help we asked for Biodynamic wines and found we got fabulous value, grower produced and outstanding quality wine we would never get on the boat or in many cases not find in any U.S wine shops.

Conclusion: The meals were always better than the wine served by the cruise line, so go into the whole riverboat cruise adventure knowing you might want to purchase wine along the way than do a side by side comparison with the “free” wines served at lunch and dinner. We thoroughly enjoyed the cruises and the wonderful wines we purchased along the way. Just don’t expect better “free” wines to be served with the meals if you pay more for a cruise!!!

Our reviews of wines we purchased ashore and drank on the Burgundy/Rhone cruise can be found by searching the term River Cruse Wine in the keyword index.