A cruise ship is probably not the first place you’d expect to find Screaming Eagle’s Cabernet Sauvignon available by the glass. The California vineyard’s small-batch products, celebrated by oenophiles for their exclusivity, rarely appear on wine lists by the bottle, let alone for those looking to sample a taste of one of the US’s most famous vintages without having to worry about remortgaging the house. 

Screaming Eagle by the glass is just one of several eye-catching additions to Cunard’s new wine list on board the revamped Queen Mary 2. The $945 price tag – and if you’re looking for a missing decimal point, there isn’t one – for a 150ml measure may be hefty but, according to Anthony Habert, head of beverage services at parent company Carnival UK, sales so far have been encouraging. Habert, who worked in the onshore wine industry prior to joining Carnival in 2015 and now oversees beverage selection for its UK-focused brands, including Cunard and P&O UK, is excited by the list as a whole. “We’re doing some pretty edgy things with wine,” he says.

Edgy is not a term traditionally associated with cruise-ship wine lists but Habert stresses that the overriding objective across Carnival’s UK-focused brands remains offering “something for everyone”, and Cunard’s new list is far from a novelty: it’s part of an industry-wide trend. As cruise guests’ knowledge of and appreciation for wine grows, operators are upgrading their wine lists to draw in the potential guests.

In doing so, however, operators face a delicate balancing act. Keeping up with the latest on-trend wine varietals and techniques while ensuring that lists are accessible to all and staff is sufficiently trained is difficult enough; now, cruise operators must also factor in the logistical challenges that come with realising the ambition.

Greater demand, greater diversity

Wine is rapidly becoming the tipple of choice among drinkers in major European and North American cruise markets, prompting operators to place a greater emphasis on wine offerings than ever before. Wine overtook beer as the most popular alcoholic drink among UK adults in 2015, according to a poll commissioned by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association. In the US – the world’s largest wine market by some distance – retail sales of wine grew 10.7% year on year to $55.8 billion in 2015. Germany, meanwhile, overtook Italy to become the world’s third-largest wine-consumption market last year, according to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine.

“The rise of wine consumption has really informed changes to the beverage selection we put on board,” explains Habert. “Among older and younger demographics, wine is now omnipresent in their beverage vocabulary, and is key to [our] repertoire of drinks.”

As well as offering an expanded wine list, P&O UK now has a dedicated wine-focused bar and restaurant concept, The Glass House, on its Aurora, Azura, Britannia and Ventura ships. Its menu was developed by British wine expert and television personality Olly Smith, and features wine flights and pairings.

Another issue to take into consideration is that wine drinkers’ tastes seem to be becoming more diverse, with a growing preference being seen for lesser-known varietals and provenances – a trend increasingly reflected in cruise operators’ on-board offerings. River-cruise operator AmaWaterways, which has placed significant emphasis on its wine-themed cruises since its establishment in 2002, has, in response, broadened its selection of lesser-known varietals and locally produced wines in recent years.

“Many of our guests like to experiment with [previously] unknown grape varietals,” explains Rudi Schreiner, AmaWaterways’ co-founder and president. “Today’s passenger also has a much broader knowledge of the various wine flavours and we are constantly introducing such new varietals.” Schreiner cites central European grapes grüner veltliner, blaufränkisch and silvaner among the lesser-known varietals introduced.

Carnival’s expanded wine lists also reflect a greater propensity for experimentation among its passengers. While P&O’s list now extends to around 140 different wines, it is on the revamped Cunard list, which almost doubled in size from 250 to 450 wines, that the plurality of contemporary shoreside wine trends really shines through.

The new Cunard list not only has a focus on emerging varietals such as Albariño and Provençal Rosé, but also includes wine from 23 different countries, including emerging wine-producing nations such as Turkey, Israel, India and China.

Local knowledge

This greater variety taps into another emerging trend: a growing focus on provenance and localisation. “That allows our guys, when we are in any ports near wine-producing regions, to recommend good local wines,” says Habert. But the logistical complexity of operating multiple ships carrying thousands of passengers between countries still limits the extent to which Cunard and other large ocean-cruise brands can localise their offerings. Meanwhile, river-cruise brands such as Ama that operate smaller cruises covering shorter distances – Ama’s ships have a capacity of around 150 passengers, while Cunard and P&O tend to host over 2,000 – have more flexibility to tailor their wine selections to the locations in which they are docked.

“We change our wine offering every day and in every country,” says Schreiner. “It’s something that we find our guests truly appreciate, providing them with a new selection each day and night.”

The personal touch

As well as expanding their lists, cruise brands are investing in tailored wine offerings, in line with what Schreiner sees as the rising passenger demand for “high levels of personalisation in their vacation experience”.

Earlier this year, Holland America Line launched BLEND, a purpose-built venue aboard the Koningsdam, in which passengers can create their own blends from a selection of five barrels of red wine produced by Chateau Ste Michelle, a Washington-State-based winery. And Celebrity Cruises last year launched VINU, an on-board digital device providing wine recommendations to guests based on their tastes and interests.

Ensuring a truly personal experience, many cruise operators are offering enhanced training to ensure that staff can provide better-informed wine recommendations to guests. Carnival, for instance, has recently hired new fleet beverage-development specialists to provide staff training and ensures that all wine experts delivering guest lectures also provide training for crew members while on board its ships.

Natural (dis)advantage

Although most emerging shoreside wine trends have been broadly accepted by cruise operators, the growing preference for ‘natural’ wine has proved rather more divisive: Ama and other small river-cruise operators now feature locally produced natural wines prominently on their daily wine lists, but natural wines present a dilemma for larger ocean-cruise operators such as Carnival, given the potential variation in quality and taste due to the absence of sulphur dioxide and other chemicals from the production process. This also makes natural wines more susceptible to the fluctuations in temperature that are inevitable on large ships often travelling between regions with very different weather conditions.

“I’ve got nothing against the principle of natural wines at all, but they don’t have the same degree of security and stability in terms of product quality by the time they reach the guest,” explains Habert. “This is not a risk that we’re prepared to take, because we have a more variable environment than a fixed restaurant.”

More Dorset, less London

Natural wine aside, all cruise operators acknowledge the importance of reflecting current wine trends in their offerings. But maintaining the right balance between new trends and old favourites is vital.

Operators are guarded about revealing the precise demographic distributions of their passengers, but profiles are widely believed to be weighted towards older guests, while a sizable proportion live outside of the large, cosmopolitan metropolitan areas that tend to be at forefront of the newest trends. Tilting a wine list too far in favour of the latest tastes, therefore, risks alienating a large number of cruise operators’ customers.

“We probably are behind the game a little bit, but that’s because the primary [trend-setting] markets for wine are not cruise ships – they’re places like London,” says Habert. “You could say the same about Dorset as you can about P&O. What happens on Beak Street in Soho is very different to what happens on the high street in Dorchester. Our wine lists have to work across all our different demographics. They have to tick all the boxes.”

That doesn’t mean cruise operators’ attitudes to wine have to be inherently conservative, however. On the contrary, Habert believes that the nature of a cruise enables operators to encourage guests to experiment more than may be the case in a restaurant or even a holiday resort.

“Because we get to spend more time with our guests, and our sommeliers can get to know their tastes and build up trust, we have more opportunities to encourage them to try something different,” says Habert. “Of course, if they want to stick to their old favourites, that’s absolutely fine too.”

Ama may place a greater emphasis on local wines and lesser-known varietals, but the overriding principal is the same. “Our passengers have the choice: to experiment or to stick to their favourite varietals,” says Schreiner.

Flight of fancy

For cruise operators seeking the right balance between experimentation and familiarity in their wine lists while grappling with logistical and cost challenges, emerging wine technologies appear to offer an attractive solution. Carnival has introduced Coravin – a needle-through-cork siphon system – and Enomatic machines, for instance, on a number of Cunard and P&O vessels, respectively. These technologies enable wines to be served by the glass without spoiling the rest of the bottle, and has enabled the brands to enhance their wine selections in cost and space-effective ways, while making experimentation more attractive and affordable for customers.

While many passengers may have little interest in sampling expensive wines by the glass, Habert sees these new technologies as “open[ing] up a whole new panoply of wines for guests”. He is particularly excited by Cunard’s recent launch of a Médoc premier cru flight, facilitated by Coravin. At $285 for five 50ml measures, “it’s not going to be for everyone,” he says, “but you get to try each of the five first growths without having to buy an entire bottle of each, so you can see what all the hoo-ha is about.

“I’ve been seriously tempted by that one myself,” he adds.