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Rivers of wine and cognac—A river cruise through France's Bordeaux region

There's a reason that the Bordeaux area in southwestern France is considered one of the world's finest wine regions.

There's a reason that the Bordeaux area in southwestern France is considered one of the world's finest wine regions. And there's a reason that the three rivers that flow through the area are instrumental in contributing to the distinctive terroir defining Bordeaux wines. (The varying soil composition and microclimates also add to the terroir).

Since my sommelier friends often tell me that the world's best reds come from Bordeaux, the world's largest fine wine region, I was eager to discover the wines, and decide for myself. Enjoying legendary French cuisine was a given along with the French macaron specialty I see cropping up everywhere in the world these days.

I chose a river cruise so I could leave the logistics up to someone else—my designated driver was essentially the ship captain of the Viking Longship Forseti and my designated guide was Susann Otto, program director for port excursions and wine-tastings. The itinerary was more than Bordeaux—encompassing the surrounding Bordeaux region of Cadillac, Sauternes, Libourne, St. Emilion, Blaye, Cognac and Paulliac. The bonus was that Viking offered complimentary tours in the various ports.

Educational enrichment on the Viking Forseti was instrumental in helping me understand the basics of French wines, as my sophomoric knowledge was limited. For example, I quickly learned that in wine country, a chateau is a wine estate, and not necessarily a castle.

Be forewarned that wine tastings on this itinerary are prolific, so it's necessary to quickly adopt the "sip-swirl-spit" routine. All the professionals do.

The Terroir of Bordeaux Wine

The terroir (soil, climate and topography) in Bordeaux region is generally some of the best in the world. On the right bank of the Gironde is Blaye, Bourg, St. Emilion, and Pomerol—where winemaking started in Roman times around the 11th century. The soil is clayey. On the left bank, the Medoc area is known for round pebbles and generally a gravelly-type soil—ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon.

I learned that Bordeaulais wines (Bordeaux region) are blends of various grapes, not single varietals as may be common in North America. The five main red grape varieties grown in the region include: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon (dominant on the west side of the river), Merlot (dominant on the east side of the Gironde), Petit Verdot and Malbec.

Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon are the two main grapes grown for white wines, both dry and sweet. Even the whites are blended. But it is the concept of "noble rot" that took me completely by surprise. I had never heard about a vineyard full of rotting grapes being good for wine. Simply stated, noble rot is a beneficial form of a grey fungus (Botrytis) that thrives in moist conditions and infects ripe grapes. If then exposed to drier conditions and the grapes become raisined, the resulting harvest produces concentrated sweet wines that are known for their intense yet complex flavour. The Sauternes wines from Bordeaux are made from grapes subjected to noble rot. (The takeaway was that noble rot is a good thing.)

The Journey

The river cruise started in Bordeaux, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with 18th-century architecture and grand statues in the city centre that will impress. One of my favourites was the Monument aux Girondins, a massive sculpture commemorating the Girondists, victims of the guillotine during Robespierre's Reign of Terror.

Next stop was the picture-postcard town of Cadillac, defined by a 17th century castle originally the home the first Duke of Epernon, eventually becoming a women's prison and psychiatric hospital until the 1950s. A Sauternes wine tasting is included, one of Thomas Jefferson's favorite wines during his visits to France.

The next day we paid a morning visit to Libourne, a bustling market-town with a city hall boasting rare pieces of art within its brick walls. Afternoon included a tour to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of St. Emilion, a medieval village of red roofs, narrow cobblestone streets, and world-class wines, especially red wine. Photo opportunities abound.

The citadel town of Blaye was the next port-of-call. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the town's strategic position on the Gironde was instrumental in defending upriver Bordeaux and its wine production on the Garonne River. Built on the orders of King Louis XIV, the 17th-century citadel, fortified city walls, and two nearby forts comprise the world heritage site. Don't leave Blaye without experiencing La Petite Cave, a short walk from the pier. Proprietor and wine expert Les Kellen curated tastings along with giving a rare "inside" view of how the locals live.

I joined a premium tour granting our group privileged access to a cognac blending master class in Cognac. (The town of Cognac is the birthplace of one of the world's best-known types of brandy—Camus). The highlight was creating my own personal blend, recording my recipe in Camus's inscription books, and bringing home my full bottle of hand-crafted cognac in a wood-hewn box for future tastings.

Cruising to Pauillac, we toured Medoc while sampling some of France's best wines in the Margaux appellation. A gala dinner at Chateau Kirwan gave us another opportunity to taste Margaux Merlots and cabernet francs. The next day I learned how wine barrels are made at barrel maker La Nadalie, followed by visits to Chateau Paloumey and Chateau Leoville-Poyferre for wine-sipping with artisanal cheese.

IF YOU GO: France: Chateaux, Rivers & Wine