On the high seas of the South Atlantic, a thousand kilometres from the nearest landfall, we sat down to a tasting of fine French wines aboard Le Lyrial, a small luxury cruise ship. One of four expedition ships designed by Ponant, a pioneer of polar expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic, based in Marseilles, our good ship is French-owned - and carries a fabulous cellar of fine wines at sea. The menus are designed by Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse - served with a good selection of fine wines to match the superb cuisine. Scott of the Antarctic never had it this good.
Spending twenty-one days at sea, we got to know the two experienced sommeliers Loic Menguy and Ludovic Friscourt - as well as Gede one of the skilled bartenders who says he carries five hundred cocktails in his head - pretty well. When you spend your time visiting some of the world’s most remote and rugged islands from the Falklands/Malvinas and South Georgia to Gough and Tristan da Cunha, you develop an appetite for good food and wine back on board. Trekking through the world’s greatest breeding grounds for rare species of albatross, petrels, shearwaters, penguins and seals - nesting, feeding and calling - is a hungry business. Watching all those cute happy feet engaged in a food chase all over the shore soon turns thoughts to dinner.
The many French passengers voted with their own happy feet for a wine tasting on one of the days at sea. Ponant operates an open bar (included in the cost of the fare) which covers premium cocktails, spirits, good house wines and all beverages - but also offers a daily pay selection of matching fine wines by the glass, carafe and bottle. You’d expect the best from a luxury cruise line in the Artemis Group - which also owns luxury brands from Chateau Latour (the iconic first growth of the Medoc) to Christie’s, Gucci and Saint Laurent. The glass cellar afloat in the fine dining room offers a special la cave selection ranging from Latour grand vin (E740 for the 2001 vintage) and its Les Forts de Latour and Pauillac labels to Margaux (E900 for 2005), Haut-Brion, Vosne-Romanee (Burgundy’s grandest crus), Vougeot and d’Yquem.
Ponant’s global fine wine list (France, Germany Italy and Spain to Napa and beyond) served on its fleet of four luxury ships carries Decanter, Wine Spectator and Robert Parker ratings (in the high 90’s for the likes of Haut-Brion 2005 at E1290). Today we are doing a tutored blind tasting of white and red Bordeaux and Burgundy which starts with the sommeliers dividing us for convenience into English/American and French language groups. After handing out AOC maps of Bordeaux and Burgundy - as well as a controversial tongue taste bud map - the passengers are invited to identify the style and origin of the wines (right down to whether Medoc, Pauillac, Margaux, Pomerol, Graves, St Emilion, etc). All quite challenging. I’m relieved to identify all four wines by appellation and style - but not producer. The sommeliers are impressed.
The degustation starts with a 2013 La Pierrelee Chablis, from La Chablisienne, a century-old label which sources grapes from 300 small-scale growers to blend a mosaic of terroir. Instantly recognisable as Chardonnay, with bright apple, citrus and stone-fruit aromas and flavours, it carries the hallmark minerality of the region. The sommelier talks about the oyster shell fossils in the soil of Chablis - the archetype of mineral wines. Damien LeClerc, MD of Chablisienne, writes pithily about what he calls “the Chablis spirit”. “Minerality exudes a certain form of purity - a crystalline expression. Could someone have dropped pebbles in the wine? The expression ‘minerality’ has worked its way into the vocabulary of sommeliers … aromas straight out of the rock … telltale aromas of pebbles, chalk, flint, graphite, shell and iodine”.
The sommelier emphasized that the tasting was intended to demonstrate that French winemakers and consumers are more focused on terroir than on the varieties or assemblage of the wines. Point taken. We moved onto a white Bordeaux, a 2012 blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc which shows fabulous bottle-age and complexity - a rich, intense wine with great texture and length. As we swirled and nosed our glasses, the South Atlantic swirled past through the picture-glass windows of the dining-room. The sommelier unveiled the producer - Chateau Bouscaut from Pessac-Leognan, a grand cru Graves. Next up an exquisitely perfumed Burgundy, light and elegant, with cherry and raspberry flavours - an Olivier Leffaire cru from Pommard in Cote D’Or. We finished with a sublime Grand Vin de Bordeaux, a concentrated, fragrant 2006 grand cru Margaux from Chateau Brane-Cantenac.
After an aperitif of Henry Abele Brut, Ponant’s house champagne from Reims, my palate was piqued for dinner. All aboard were treated to a global celebration of French gastronomy held on 21 March around the world - organised annually by Goût de France (A Taste of France) involving 2000 French chefs preparing 2000 menus on the same night on five continents (and in our case at sea aboard Le Lyrial!). Ponant chef de cuisine Antoine Kuster and his complement of chefs prepared a feast in the South Atlantic worthy of Napoleon Bonaparte. We enjoyed yet more fine Chablis and Brane-Cantenac - as well as other fine wines with an egg cooked sous vide at 64o in pumpkin and chestnut foam, scallops carpaccio with lime zest and wasabi sponge cake, roasted lobster tail in a cauliflower mousse and grilled lamb with polenta, glazed turnips and eggplant caviar - earthy fare miles from the nearest landfall.
Amazingly, chef cooked a six-course vegetarian degustation dinner for non-carnivore passengers. No wonder a flotilla of wandering albatrosses, petrels and terns soared in the wake of Le Lyrial all the way from Ushaia at the foot of South America to near Cape Town. While the birdwatchers stood on deck come rain or shine, keeping watch with binoculars and long lenses, on sea days we twitched our noses over house wines which ranged from a delightfully fragrant Rousanne/Viognier blend from Mas Neuf on the southern edge of the Rhône - a great partner for the piquant goat’s cheese on a platter of ripe reblochon to Livarot and Pont l’Eveque - to a spicy Jardin des Charmes Cinsault/Grenache Rose which evoked childhood memories of marshmallows and mandarins - and Malbec from Bernard Magrez who makes wines from all over the world from Argentina and Morocco to France, Spain and Portugal.
The great thing about the global village of wine is how every country brings its own culture to the table, from the aromas, character and flavours of food and wine to differing national tastes of sweet, salty, savoury, spicy, sour and acidic. On our expedition cruise with Ponant, we shared wine, bread, dinner tables and life-changing experiences with passengers from over a dozen countries. After being surrounded by water, water, water everywhere - and loads of blue ice and glaciers, every time I drink a glass of Chardonnay back in the Cape, I think of the comments of Damien LeClerc, MD of Chablisienne, who says minerality is as elusive as the smell of big fat rain drops that fall and dry as they land - just before a storm on a hot, dry day. In the long Cape drought, we pray for the storm to break - and the rains to fall.
Graham Howe was a guest of Ponant, a leading luxury cruise company - for polar expeditions visit www.ponant.com. For bookings, contact Development Promotions in Jhb - www.devprom.co.za, tel: +27.11 463 1170.