On a recent wine cruise I learned a few surprising things: A higher alcohol content doesn't make better wine; the smaller the grape, the more concentrated the flavour; and most importantly, you needn't go to Europe to find a river cruise that takes in award-winning wineries, spectacular vistas, and rich history.
In fact, you need go no further than Portland, Oregon. That's where Un-Cruise Adventures has launched its new wine-focused cruise that takes in four rivers, nine wineries and countless moments of swirling and sipping both on-board and off.
Leaving Portland, we waste no time getting down to the business of pleasure. While the SS Legacy — a replica coastal steamer — waits for us near The Bridge of the Gods on the Columbia River Gorge, we visit three wineries on our first day; two in Oregon and one in Washington.
"What's unique about the Gorge is the variation in climate, altitude, aspect and soil," explains Carey Kienitz, the winemaker at Springhouse Cellar, as we taste a flight of his whites and reds amidst the Romanesque ruins of this former pear cannery and distillery.
The Gorge may still be better known for apples and pears than grapes, but wineries now abound — more than three dozen dot this eye-catching canyon. Further up the road and set amongst acres of orchards, Mt. Hood Winery epitomizes this burgeoning industry, where small- to medium-size winemakers are quickly making a name for themselves.
"Their ice wine was one of the five top wines out of 1,600 wines at the Great Northwest Wine Competition in 2015," says Steven Sinkler, a wine expert who's accompanying us on this maiden wine cruise.
To end the day, we cross the storied Columbia River that Lewis and Clark paddled to the Pacific more than 200 years ago. Arriving at AniChe Cellars, where the all-female winemaking team makes wines in a former horse stable, we sit within earshot of clucking chickens and savour crisp white and complex red blends. "We make wine that's going to be a little more feminine," the winemaker's daughter explains, "with less tannin. Less 'muscle' wines."
Back on board the Legacy, we join Steve in the lounge to talk and taste yet more wine. (With six wines on tap 24/7, your glass will never be empty.) "The finest wines in the world are blended wines," Steve tells us, swirling a glass of red and comparing AniChe's Seven Gables blend to blends from France's famed Châteauneuf-du-Pape Appellation, where one wine can have up to 13 varietals. "She has seven of these grapes," Steve enthuses about AniChe. "This is a $125 bottle of wine selling for $26... a spectacular value."
And so our cruise progresses, our small group of wine enthusiasts visiting wineries by day and learning by night, as we move ever eastward. One evening we hear how the Columbia River Gorge came to be so fertile. At the end of the last ice age — about 15,000 years ago — a glacial dam in present-day Montana burst, releasing a torrent of water that carved out the Columbia River valley and carried topsoil as far west as Oregon's Willamette Valley. "Five hundred cubic miles of water," says on-board naturalist Jackie Hedgpeth. "We can't even imagine."
By our second day we've left behind the Gorge and Cascade Mountains. The landscape changes to arid plateaus and basalt rock formations that are blacker than the blackened scallops we enjoy for dinner one night.
At Walla Walla, Steve tells us "we're basically in Bordeaux." With more than 150 wineries, the town that was once famous for sweet onions is now considered one of the top 10 wine regions in the world. Later, as we turn up the Snake River, trains carrying cargo and grain whistle past. Near the Snake's junction with the Palouse, we enjoy a refreshing swim and stare in awe at Palouse waterfalls, carved from those cataclysmic floods of long ago.
On our return down the Columbia Valley there's time for more wineries, including my favourite of the week — Maryhill — with stunning views from its patio under a grape arbour. The nearby Maryhill Museum of Art is a bonus, with astounding collections, including sculptures by Rodin and personal memorabilia from Queen Marie of Romania.
By week's end we've learned to sip and swirl like a pro, but my friend Julie and I still can't pick out those flavours of black cherry and plum and cedar and everything else that oenophiles rave about. At our last wine tasting at The Wine Shack at Cannon Beach on the Pacific Coast Julie throws up her hands. "Who cares anyway?" she asks peevishly. I laugh and buy a bottle to take home. I may not know a Merlot from a Malbec, but I know a good cruise when I've had one, and this one has been — as Steve would say —"spectacular."
Before and after your cruise: The Jupiter Hotel in Portland is a 1960s era motor lodge that has been restored and converted to a funky, one-of-a-kind hotel just five minutes from downtown.www.jupiterhotel.com.
Un-Cruise Adventures offers more wine cruises throughout 2016 beginning April 16. All-inclusive rates begin at US$3,995 per person. For booking information, go to www.un-cruise.com and select Ameritage! Four Rivers of Wine & History.