Sip of Success
hich airlines serve the nest in-flight wines The winners of our annual awards are revealed
Which airlines serve the finest inflight wines? The winners of our annual awards are revealed
It’s time to crack open a bottle and celebrate. After tasting 250 wines from 28 airlines, our expert judges have picked the winners of the 2013 Business Traveler Cellars in the Sky Awards, presented to the carriers that served the best onboard wine last year.
Head judge Charles Metcalfe, cochairman of the International Wine Challenge and food and wine matching guru, handed out trophies at a wellattended reception on February 3 at London’s historic Trinity House (trinityhouse.co.uk/events), with catering from Chamberlain’s – our thanks to Trinity House for providing the perfect venue.
We also held wine tastings at the Business Travel Show in Earls Court on February 4-5.
Joining Metcalfe on the judging panel were Peter McCombie, Master of Wine and top restaurant wine consultant, Robert Joseph, author and wine critic, and Richard Bampfield, Master of Wine and wine consultant.
Choosing the Winners
Airlines could participate providing they served wine in business or first on midor long-haul routes. Each could enter two reds, two whites, a sparkling and a fortified or dessert wine from both their business and first class cellars. They could compete in as many categories as they liked, but to be eligible for the Best Cellar awards, they had to enter at least one red, white and sparkling wine.
Every bottle was blind-tasted so no one was influenced by the labels. Our thanks to the judges for all their hard work during the tastings, which took place over two days in December.
Wines were scored out of 100, with award-winning ones rated between 90 and 97, and anything under 75 deemed undrinkable. To calculate the Best First and Business Class Cellar awards, we took the average mark of an airline’s red, white and sparkling wines. For the Best Overall Cellar, we took all scores into account.
What the Judges Said
This year saw the return of Robert Joseph to the judging panel, who was one of our expert judges when Cellars in the Sky began in 1985.
“Back then, I don’t think airlines thought about how the wine tasted in the air, or with the food they were serving,” he says. “So I think what we did in the early years was a good way of getting them to focus on these issues.”
He adds: “Some wines we used to taste in the 1980s are no longer affordable. Wines you used to get in business are now in first class, and the first class wines aren’t anywhere.” Then again, it’s not necessarily the priciest wines that taste the best in cabin conditions, and Joseph says the quality has become “immeasurably better.”
“This year, it was good to see some really enterprising, unusual wines, and some nice refreshing whites – there were some great Rieslings, which it would be good to see more of,” he notes.
How did 2013’s entries compare with
other years? “Business class entries were consistently good, which they haven’t always been – whereas the first class reds and whites were full of peaks and troughs,” Metcalfe says. “Some wines were absolutely delicious and others not very nice at all – either too old, or just not very good. Then again, the first class fizz was as it is normally – almost entirely delicious – as was the first class fortified/dessert category.”
Only one of the winning reds this year was a Bordeaux – a wine with the prestige that premium passengers may expect to see on the menu, but that often doesn’t work well in the air because of its high level of tannins.
“What tends to happen at altitude is that tough, tannic wines become more so,” Joseph says.“The wine with the château name on it is probably the one that isn’t going to taste great. When we’re judging, we are looking for simplicity – wines that are easy to drink, and fruity, to fight off the tannins.”
Metcalfe echoes this: “We felt it was sad not to have seen more pinot noir or burgundy. These grapes produce nice smooth wines which are very easy-drinking in the air – we had a few, but not as many as we would have liked. Then again, maybe there’s a prejudice against serving a pinot noir in a premium cabin because people don’t think it’s posh enough. And it’s difficult to get burgundy in large quantities, so maybe that’s another reason.”
The challenge remains for airlines to meet passengers’ expectations, while choosing wines that actually taste good in the air. “Our advice to airlines is that if they want to include Bordeaux, they shouldn’t necessarily go for the top wine,” Metcalfe says. “If they do, they should go for a lighter vintage, such as a 2007, which is slightly easier-going than some of the vintages surrounding it.
“They could also go for a château’s second wine rather than its top, which will be produced in pretty much the same way but deliberately be made so that it is ready to drink at a younger age [thus having less tannins].”
How Airlines Choose Wine
While some carriers want the big names on their lists, others prefer to showcase their national vinification culture. Yair Haidu, El Al’s head of wine, says: “Since Israel’s wines are lesser known, it is a great opportunity to show people how good they are, and it opens up passengers’ curiosity about the country even before they have landed. Our sunny climate and mountainous landscape produces beautiful wines. The best wines in the world come from the altitudes, which gives grapes a freshness that works well at 30,000 feet.”
As with Cellars in the Sky, many airlines blind-taste their wines. Simon Soni, Etihad’s head of guest experience, catering, says: “Our wines are selected by a blind tasting panel that includes wine specialists and some of the best certified sommeliers in the UAE. The airline considers a number of key factors including origin, grape variety and vintage in harmony with its menus. Details such as winery reputation and winemaker philosophy are also taken into consideration. Overall, balanced acidity, soft tannins and stronger fruits are important qualities.”
Top: Judges Charles Metcalfe and Peter McCombie (second and third left)