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March 22, 2018, Bordeaux, France

Cruising in high spirits

Chong Jun Liang goes on a river cruise that takes him to the famed vineyards and châteaux of Bordeaux in France

Chong Jun Liang

MY EYES lit up when I was assigned a trip to Bordeaux.

Though my preferred choice of alcohol is Japanese whiskey, I was excited about visiting one of France’s most famous wine regions, which produces 700 to 900 million bottles annually.

That I got to travel in style, on board the luxurious River Royale operated by river cruise company Uniworld, was a bonus.

Most flights from Singapore to Bordeaux involve a transit in Paris.

If you are feeling adventurous, skip Uniworld’s airport transfer from Bordeaux airport and take the TGV high-speed train from Paris instead, like I did.

The train’s First Class seats, equipped with power points and USB ports, are comfortable for both rest and work during the two-and-a-half-hour journey.

I experienced Uniworld’s fivestar service the minute I got to the dock after a 10-minute taxi ride from the Bordeaux Saint-Jean train station, where a crew member welcomed me personally.

On board, a sumptuous French dinner awaited in the opulent dining hall.

During my eight-day cruise along the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, we disembarked daily to visit vineyards, châteaux and towns such as Cadillac, Pauillac, Libourne and Bordeaux.

Award-winning wine

Though Bordeaux, in the southwest of France, is predominantly known for its red wines, the first vineyard we visited was a producer of Sauternes, a sweet wine with a golden hue.

Established in the 17th century, Château de Rayne Vigneau is one of the top wineries in Sauternes.

Its signature wine, the Rayne Vigneau, was awarded the prestigious First Growth status in the 1855 classification and named the world’s best sweet wine in 1867.

We toured the vineyard and cellar, where the guide gave us a brief insight into the wine-making process. An eagerly anticipated wine-tasting session followed. We lapped up every drop.

Once upon a castle

Sauternes was served at our lavish lunch at the 14th-century Château Royal de Cazeneuve, a half-hour drive from Château de Rayne Vigneau.

The castle, once home to King Henri IV and Queen Margot, is now a museum. The royals’ rooms have been restored to their former glory, with artefacts such as historical paintings and silverware on display.

Behind the castle is a forest known as “Queen Margot’s woods” where, legend has it, the amorous queen would sneak off to meet her lovers.

It felt surreal to dine in these halls and stroll on the sprawling grounds where famous kings like Henri IV and his son, Louis XIII, once walked. I had goose bumps imagining royal affairs and court intrigues as our guide entertained us with stories about the castle.

‘Tour de France’

One highlight of the trip was a 16km bicycle ride through the towns and vineyards of Saint-Julien.

When the ship docked near the Château Lagrange winery, now owned by the Japanese Suntory group, we were offered the option to travel to the château by bus or set out for a “Tour de France”.

The active ones chose to enjoy the views on two wheels and joked that the prize was not a race winner’s yellow jersey but a glass of quality red wine.

During our leisurely but exhilarating one-hour ride, we were also rewarded with delicious juicy grapes that our guide plucked from a vineyard.

As the wind caressed our faces, we basked in the rustic charms of the French countryside.

The autumn colours and the golden rays of the sunset were ideal for capturing picture-perfect moments, which delighted the photographer in me.

Cheers to Cognac

During the cruise, passengers had the option of visiting the distillery of cognac maker Rémy Martin in Cognac, at an additional cost of €65 (S$106).

Although the cognac giant bans photography in most areas, the visit was worth the two-hour bus journey from Blaye.

The air in the cool distillery had a pleasant whiff of the liquor’s aroma and a walk through the grounds imbues one with the aura of its nearly 300-year history.

The original cellar — designed by Gustave Eiffel (who built the Eiffel Tower) — is no longer in use and is now housed in the history gallery.

I learnt a few facts about the making of cognac that would impress my drinking buddies.

For one, Rémy Martin’s coveted Louis XIII cognac takes 100 years to age to perfection, which means that the current cellar master is essentially preparing cognac for future generations.

If you are interested in beefing up your knowledge of wine, sign up for wine appreciation lessons by the River Royale’s sommelier.

Whether you become a connoisseur or not, you will certainly be able to appreciate your wine better. Santé!

The writer’s trip was organised by Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection.

Getting there

I flew from Singapore to Paris on Turkish Airlines, then took the TGV high-speed train to Bordeaux.

Guidelines

■ Take the official taxis in Bordeaux. They are safer and the fares go by the meter.

■ The best time to visit Bordeaux is between June and August. Harvesting takes place in autumn and some vineyards may be closed to visitors then.

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