Some of the best wine regions in the world are located near cruise ports, yet the experience that wine lovers have on cruise ships can often feel less than ideal. In recent years, the trend toward craft cocktails and local beers has eclipsed the attention many cruise lines pay toward their shipboard wines, particularly those that you can buy by the glass.
Yet never fear; there are ways that you can work the system to make sure your tipple is tops. Here are some tricks that I’ve picked up through my decade as a WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) Level 3-certified wine lover at sea:
My top tip makes sense, but you’d be surprised how few cruisers go out of their way to get to know the wine professionals onboard. Even mainstream cruise ships employ sommeliers that usually have gone through wine classes or a certification program like WSET. Asking them about their recommendations and their credentials often gets them to open up, beyond just the desire to sell bottles. You’ll often find a good sommelier is willing to help you find a good deal or even pair wines by the glass with your dinner courses.
Again, this seems like an obvious tip. But the wine bars on cruise ships are often less crowded than other venues onboard and the bartenders often have wine certification. Belly up and have a conversation, ask for recommendations. You might even get a free pour (it doesn't always happen, but we've been blessed more than once). As a bonus, you'll meet other wine lovers at these venues too.
Sure, tastings and other wine events show up in the daily program. But I’ve found that if you talk to sommeliers, they will tell you what’s coming – and they’ll also tell you if the tasting or special meals, which usually carry extra fees, is worth it. See if you can get a list of the wines ahead of time. That way, you’ll be able to see who the producers are, and if the tasting is a chance to have wines you wouldn’t ordinarily see if – or if the wines are exactly the same that you find at the store back home. There’s no sense paying for a Chef’s Table dining experience that skimps out on the wines that go with it.
Another nice perk of attending wine events onboard: you’ll usually meet other passengers who share your love of the grape. Who knows, maybe they’ll even invite you to share a special bottle with you.
Most cruise lines allow you to bring one or two bottles of wine per person with you that you can keep in your room or open at dinner with a slight corkage fee, provided they’re carried onboard the vessel in your hand luggage during embarkation. Having a glass of wine on your balcony during sailaway or at sunset is one of those great pleasures of cruising – and it’s even better when it’s a nice wine that you’ve picked out, as opposed to a non-descript wine that you have to line up at the bar to get.
Most luxury lines and river cruise lines also allow you to bring wine back on from shore that you can drink in your room; these lines sometimes waive the corkage fee.
Depending on what kind of drinker you are, a beverage package that focuses on wines by the bottle is often a better deal than a regular drink package. Generally, bottles onboard sell for a little more than half of what you’d find at a store on land. While no one likes a markup, it’s still cheaper than the daily price of most drink packages.
Don’t think you’ll finish your bottle at dinner? You can either have it corked and stored for the next night, or on some ships, ask if you can bring it back to the mini-fridge in your room.
Luxury cruises and more inclusive cruise lines usually focus more on wine as part of the overall shipboard experience. Not only do you normally get more choices of wine by the glass, you often have a mini bar that is replenished with alcoholic beverages of your choice. If you don’t like the beer or soda that’s already in there, you can ask your butler or room attendant for your favorite varietal instead.
Even on luxury lines when alcohol is included at meals, the servers in the dining rooms usually pour just two wines with your meal, a red or white, which rotate daily. Don’t be afraid to ask for something different if you don’t like what’s being served. Or call over the sommelier and ask what else is available within the included options. You’re likely to get a better recommendation that what is being featured that particular evening.
Several cruise lines have culinary themed cruises or partnerships where a particular sailing has a guest chef onboard. In my experience, you’re likely to have a better choice of wine on these cruises, as the lines do what they can to win the cruising hearts of foodies. Small-ship luxury line SeaDream Yacht Club has specific wine voyages where vintners come onboard to talk wine, as does AmaWaterways on Europe’s rivers.
Other lines, including mainstream ones, sometimes offer one-off sailings that focus on wine and wine production, so it’s always worth checking here or with your favorite travel agent to find out what’s on offer.