Cheers on the Water! – An Alpine Tasting on the Empress

by Dave Zuchowski, ‘Burgh Vivant.

When I noticed the Gateway Clipper was hosting an Alpine wine tasting as part of its monthly series of wine dinner cruises, it brought back memories of my youth, a time when I was exploring Europe and first encountered Fechy and Fendant, two Swiss wines whose names I remember to this day.

What could be more Alpine than Switzerland ? Maybe, thought I, the wine selections on the dinner cruise aboard the Empress would include one or both of the white wines I hadn’t had since my early 20s. Alas, the three selections featured at the dinner, while luscious, were from the Piedmont region of Northern Italy and foothills of the Alps in Austria  Sans Fendant and Fechy, I decided to take the cruise anyway.

Boarding The Empress. Photo by Bill Rockwell.

The warm weather the Pittsburgh area was enjoying the evening of September 13 promised a chance to go up to the top deck after the tasting and take in the view of city’s sparkling downtown from its three river vantage points. Eager to get underway, my dining companion and I boarded the boat, and the first thing we saw was tray of glasses filled with Fred Loimer Gruner Veltliner LOIS from Austria.

Cory Hart, a wine consultant for the Winebow Group, selected the white wine as the accompaniment to the appetizer course set up on a buffet table in the center of the room. As the other patrons came on board, cruise directors Katie and Shayna gave them their table assignments and a glass of the white Austrian wine.

Wine consultant, Cory Hart. Photo by Bill Rockwell.

Between the time everyone made their way past the appetizer buffet and before the entrees arrived as the main part of the sit down dinner, Hart explained that the Alpine region had the advantage of a diurnal temperature flux the grapes favored that featured warm to hot days and cool nights. Off mountain breezes also helped control some of the fungal diseases that might have affected the vines and grape harvest.

He also explained the characteristics of the varietals sampled at the dinner, gave food pairing suggestions and walked from table to table to take questions.

On board, the dinner atmosphere was informal, the ambient music upbeat and accessible and the mood fairly festive. I noticed that a couple of tables sported birthday balloons, including one occupied by Caitlin and Mary Berardinelli of Jeanette, ages 22 and 52 respectively. Both women, daughter and mother, were celebrating their birthdays, only one day apart, on the 12th and 13th, and brought along their cousin, John Seber, also from Jeanette, as their designated driver.

Dinner setting. Photo by Bill Rockwell.

As a match for the entrees, a choice of either chicken and beef, Hart chose a versatile yet somewhat obscure Castello di Neive Grignolino from the Piedmont of Italy, home to better known varietals like Barbaresco, Barbera and Barolo.

“The winery produces only 4,000 bottles annually,” Hart said “As to the name Grignolino means many pips, which would give the wine too much tannin –  if they didn’t do it in a rose-style with limited maceration.”

Just before the diners filed up to the dessert and cookie buffet, our waitress poured my favorite of the evening, a Maculan Brentino from the Veneto, a region known for powerhouse reds like Amarone and Valpolicella.

A 50-50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the Brentino’s full-bodied, rich flavors with green pepper notes went especially well with the soft and dense chocolate brownies, poised like dark, calorie-laden temptresses on the dessert table.

Chicken Entrée. Photo by Bill Rockwell.

After dinner, many of the diners took advantage of the clement weather and headed up to the top deck where the sparkle of the city lights and the buzz from the wines combined for a magical experience.

Pittsburgh at twilight. Photo by Bill Rockwell.

FYI: All of the wines feature at the Alpine tasting dinner are available through the Pennsylvania state store system.

Tasting notes for the Gruner Veltliner LOIS  Pale yellow color, this wine is purely aromatic and lively! Lovely aromas of fresh apples and citrus, this wine surprises on the palate with great spice components as well as exotic fruit and a refreshing acidity.

Food Pairing: To be enjoyed either on its own, as an apéritif or with light dishes, crisp salads, vegetable dishes, seafood, Wiener Schnitzel, light fried foods such as tempura, Asian flavors. Also great with Thai.

Tasting Notes for the Castello di Neive Grignolino: Light ruby in color, aromas of red fruits and roses complement undertones of Bing cherries, strawberries, and hints of spice box.  On the palate, crisp acidity and smooth tannins make for a food friendly wine. 

Food Pairing: Pair this wine with fried seafood appetizers, Bagna Cauda, creamy veal-based dishes, and Italian cold cuts.

Tasting Notes for the Maculan Brentino: Deep ruby-red with garnet hues, the Brentino offers seductive aromas of blackberries and dark cherries, along with hints of cedar and forest due to the year spent aging in French barriques.  On the palate, the wine is dry, full-bodied, and harmoniously balanced with firm tannic structure and a persistent finish.

Food Pairing: Recommended with roasted and grilled meat dishes like pancetta-wrapped beef tenderloin or with a hearty dish like spicy sausage ragù served over creamy polenta.

If you’d like to try some wines from Switzerland, consultant Andrew Ochs at the Village Square Premium Collection Store in Bethel Park found nine Swiss selections in the PLCB portfolio, including the following three reds currently stocked at the Bethel Park location.:

Cave Caloz Cornalin Switzerland 2009 (Pinot Noir) Pa code: 45857, Price: $22.84 Qty: 10 (clearance was: $37.99)

Cave des Tilleuls Pinot Noir Switzerland de Vetroz 2008 Pa code: 45858, Price: $22.84 Qty: 9 (Clearence was: $37.99)

Robert Gilliard S A Dole des Monts Pinot Noir Switzerland 2009 (blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay) Pa code: 45142, Price: $28.99 Qty: 5.

For descriptions of these wines, phone Ochs at 412-851-0403.

Staff at the Oxford Center location in Downtown Pittsburgh can also help securing Swiss wines through the PLCB system. Phone 412-565-7689.

Upcoming wine dinner cruises aboard the Gateway Clipper Fleet include one themed to the wines of Southeast Europe on October 18. The menu is as follows:

Appetizer Menu

Iberian Ham Croquettes with Smoke Paprika Aioli

Steam Black Mussels with Vinho Verde, Garlic and Cilantro

Domestic Cheese Assortment, Bread, Crackers and Grapes

Bouquet of Raw Vegetables, Herb Buttermilk Dressing

Entree Choices 

Grilled Bavette Steak Assado

Sofrito Rice, Rapini and Mojo Rojo


Chorizo and Manchego Cheese Stuffed Chicken Breast

Smashed Patatas Bravas, Spinach and Chick Peas with a Mushroom Ajillo Sauce

Dessert Menu

Fudge Brownies

Lemon Squares

Assorted Cookies

Seasonal Fresh Fruit Arrangement

A November tasting (date yet not announced) will compare Old and New World sparklers, reds, whites and roses. The plan is to have patrons move from station to station and sample and compare each of the Old and New World wines.

Cruise Details

Dining on the water features white glove plated dinner service with expertly paired wines for each course.

Learn about each of the wines served from a wine expert from the Winebow Group.

Sit back, relax, enjoy your wine and savor the beauty of the city as the cruise plies the waters of Pittsburgh’s three rivers.

The boat’s full service bars feature various brands of liquor, beer, wine and soda and are located on both decks of vessel.

Management want diners to have the time of their life from the moment they step onboard. The crew is happy to answer any questions about the Cruise on the Three Rivers!  You can also refer to the onboard itinerary you will receive when you board the vessel!

All passengers aboard the boat MUST be 21 years of age.

Boarding time is 5:30 p.m. Sailing time is 6:30 to 9 p.m.. Tickets are $55.00

For reservations and more information, phone 412-355-7980 or visit

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