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Cruise the French Canals with Belmond's Barge Sommelier

Learn about Burgundy's wine from your own onboard wine expert.

Earlier this month, Belmond kick-started their Belmond Afloat in France barge season on the French canals, accommodating intimate groups on week-long voyages. Each riverside destination—from Arles to Dijon, and everything in-between—has its own highlights worth checking out, but those who cruise through Burgundy are in for a special treat: an opportunity to enroll in Belmond’s educational Wine Academy, and specifically, get to know the sommelier that comes with it.

"Students" of the Academy are at the mercy of onboard expert Pascal Wagner, a Burgundy resident who knows everything there is about the local wine and vineyards. His job as the brand’s wine master is to educate barge passengers, young and old, about the region’s wine through a customized itinerary—some activities are planned, while others are on the spot.

Pascal stems from a family of wine merchants (his father still works at the age of 90), and at the young age of 22, he left his home in Germany to pursue oenology at Burgundy Wine School in Beaune, France. At the end of his four-year study, Pascal ended up falling in love with the profession, his wife, and the region at large. 30 years of experience later, he is now a consultant-guide, wine animator, and Belmond’s first and only barge sommelier.

“To me, a great sommelier is a man who works within the wine business entirely, from the vineyards to the cellar and the bottle itself,” Pascal tells AFAR. “Many wine experts know the process, but haven’t created the wine themselves, like I have. In order to work in this business, you need to have a passion for wine, too. Once you put one foot in, it’s too late—the passion becomes stronger, and you want to welcome everyone into the wine world.”

And with those years of experience under his belt, Pascal has the knowledge to properly educate passengers who are yearning to learn more about the surrounding wine scene.

While on the job, there is no such thing as a typical day for Pascal. Yes, he usually meets passengers around 9:30 a.m. near the canal to begin his guided tours, but from there, the itinerary changes like the wind. Not in the mood to tire your legs out on a bike tour? Not a problem; we'll go for a hot air balloon ride above the vineyards instead. Weather took a turn for the worst? Let’s make that wine tasting an extra hour (or two).

Interested in finding out more about these river cruise adventures with Pascal? Check out this three-day sample of what you might expect during a Wine Academy experience on a trip from St Leger to Dijon with Pascal:

Day 1
A champagne reception welcomes passengers on board the barge in St Leger, where Pascal and the crew introduce themselves. Pascal gives an overview of Burgundy wines, which leads into the first dining experience aboard the ship.

Day 2
Cruise down the Canal du Central to where the barge docks; passengers disembark to explore on foot or by bike. Pascal leads the group to the ‘Cote de Beaune Grand Cru’ tasting and lunch in Puligny Montrachet—a large commune known to grow some of the best white wine grapes. After lunch, take a cellar tour and frolic through the vineyards.

Day 3
Pascal leads a tour of the Chateau de Pommard, one of the largest privately owned estates in Burgundy. After an oenological presentation on “senses and aromas,” travelers are treated to Domaine's prestigious wines. The barge takes passengers further, to the village of Fragnes, where Pascal holds a private tasting while talking about the secrets of the local Cremant de Bourgogne and Champagne.

And this year, Pascal joins the Belmond Afloat in France team for the 2016 Grand Crus Week, an annual celebration of Grand Crus wines. During this week-long event in July, small barge groups are guided through exclusive wine tastings and cellar visits usually closed to the public, and who better to do the job than Pascal? 

"The world of great wines has no limits," Pascal says. "My work, my experiences, and my passion make visitors happy, which makes me happy as well. I used to say, "You cannot purchase happiness, but you can purchase a bit of wine, and this is nearly the same"." 

>>Next: The Secret of Valle de Guadalupe's Wine (R)Evolution