Tasting Down The Danube
I love to travel, but I sometimes crave something unique. This past year I managed to visit, learn more about and taste the wines of Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria and Hungary. All this without a rental car, train tickets or even getting lost. Almost a first with my lack of map-reading skills. I didn’t even have to pack and unpack constantly, the bane of many holidays.
How did I accomplish this amazing feat? It was simple: I booked, and very much enjoyed a river cruise along the Danube. The ship, the Avalon Tapestry, was, as is typical, smallish. It offered buffet breakfasts and lunches, but featured served cuisine as well as dinner wines, not to mention the bar wines from some of the regions I cruised though — a must, in my opinion. One plus is that the package included three days in Prague, a beautiful city full of wonderful architecture, and of course sidewalk cafes offering interesting Traminers, Pinot Blancs, and even a variety of wonderful Czech beers.
Aboard the ship, I explored (which admittedly didn’t take long), and found the bar. While the cabins, and alas, the dining room, are on the smallish side — read, crowded — the ability to watch vineyards glide by while tasting Sylvaners from the nearby Main Canal area helps make up for the crowding at dinner. Similar Franken wines were served that night, complimentary and generously. As I sailed through this part of the Danube, the evening wines naturally were predominantly German. The first night our dinner included a Müller Thürgau and a Dornfelder, a red typically on the lightish side. The next evening featured a halbtrocken Riesling from the Rheingau and an Austrian Merlot. The Merlot went well with the Muscovy duck, and my notes suggest it was a pleasant dinner wine with nice cherry and plum accents.
Moving into Austria —without even consulting a map — I arrived at the charming and historic city of Passau. I skipped the optional Sound of Music tour, choosing instead to lunch in town, some wine sampling included, of course. Lunch featured a medium-bodied Pinot Noir; more Burgundian than Californian and later in the day, passing a sidewalk cafe before returning to the ship, I sampled some spicy and refreshing Grüner Veltliner. I also sampled some whites from the Moravia wine region, which seemed particularly interesting.
Two “must know” things about river cruising are the docking and wine policies. The river boats dock, when they can, and ours always did, in the centre of town. Easy steps to the sites you want to see, or for city walking tours. The policy about bringing wine aboard was simple. You bought it and walked on. None of the common restrictions found on big ship cruising. Our cabin had rolled back windows, while on some newer river boats, balconies make a nice place to watch the passing scenery while sipping something special.
While the stop at the Benedictine Abbey in Melk was fascinating, I am sad to report that no B&B was offered, let alone wine. I later found out it was the wrong abbey — B&B originating, as it does, from the Normandy region of France. In any case, it was luckily a morning visit, so our large buffet lunch, typical of our ship and most others, was a chance to purchase a German Silvaner. It was quite apple-y and crisp, described as semi-dry, but closer to a Chablis style to our palates. That, along with a red Austrian wine I’d never heard of, came with dinner. The red, a Blaufränkisch, was medium-bodied with a milder cherry finish. Later study told me it was more commonly named Lemberger in Germany.
Vienna, where I next spent a day and evening, is a beautiful city, full of great history, music, and lest I forget, sidewalk cafes offering Sachertorte with great coffees, as well as (naturally) Austrian wines. During our time there I sampled, among others, a lovely Zweigelt and a lightly oaked Chardonnay, the first Chard of our trip. I don’t know if you will ever see a Grassl Zweigelt on this side of the Atlantic, but if you do, I certainly recommend you try it. Both wines were from the Burgenland region, near Hungary, and went nicely with our on-shore lunch of lightly fried merluzzo (cod) in lobster sauce and, being in Austria after all, wienerschnitzel.
That evening, before departing Vienna, I took an optional Royal Waltz Concert in a lovely historic concert hall. Not only was the setting grand and the music lovely, but the Brut Sparkling Grüner/Chardonnay blend from Lenz Moser was tasty, with a spicy mouthfeel.
Sailing on, I arrived at our final destination, Budapest. One overnight on the ship, and then two more on my own. This provided me with many chances to sample Hungarian wines in this fascinating city. Think Prague — with less money for repairing infrastructure. During our time there I tried everything from a Szekszardi, the old “Sex on Saturday” as it used to be called (in this case a fairly thin Pinot Noir), to some wines made from the unique Kadarka grape. In wine shops it seemed to be a popular variety, producing, at least in our samplings, full-bodied wines with dark fruit, some good spice, and a tannic finish suggesting real aging potential — although I was unable to find any older vintages to try. I did taste some whites, including a pleasant Budai Chardonnay; but during our time I much preferred the reds, the white exception being a very interesting caramelly 4 puttonyos Tokay I had one evening. Except in a high-end wine shop, I never saw any classic 6 puttonyos Tokay Aszu. What a shame.
FINDING THE RIGHT RIVER CRUISE
• destinations are important
Unlike large ships, which tend to be destinations in themselves, river boats are ways to get places. Make sure you want to go there.
• size matters
River boats are much the same size, but not their cabins. They vary from tiny, under 140 square feet, to 170 plus square feet. Look to see what size is available. Some newer ships offer French Balconies (extended railings) or real balconies.
• like your chablis chilled?
Not all ships have mini-bars in the cabins, so look for that detail.
• lower decks are cheaper
Often windows or portholes are very small and don’t open. The reason is that some ships occasionally drop below water level at window height. Spoils the whole glass-of-wine viewing moment.
• what wines are complimentary
Dinner, or lunch and dinner? A good variety based on region, or just what they have on hand? Your travel agent might be able to get a typical list for you.
• excursions, optional or included? wine tours?
Some ships charge extra for many of their tours, so find out before booking. Some ships offer wine-themed tours or wine matching dinners; watch for them.