50 NOSES IN THE AIR
Let your senses take flight on board Singapore Airlines
Hundreds of wines are blind tasted before a handful make it to your flight aboard Singapore Airlines. We take a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse as wine experts Jeannie Cho Lee MW, Michael Hill-smith MW and Oz Clarke conduct their twice yearly selections. By June Lee
“It’s the World Cup of awards – there’s nothing else we want to win more,” quips U.K. wine personality Oz Clarke during a brief break in tasting while the panel of wine consultants pause to speak to the media. He’s talking about Business Traveller’s Cellar in the Sky Awards 2017, where Singapore Airlines (SIA) emerged with the biggest gold medal haul: Best Overall Cellar, Best Business Class Cellar, and Best Business Class White. SIA takes its wine menus seriously: it’s the only airline to serve both Dom Pérignon 2006 and Krug 2004 in-flight, to its Suites and First Class customers, which alone costs over $4 million annually.
Clarke is the most recent member of an elite international team, coming on board in 2014 to join two Masters of Wine: Michael Hill-smith from Australia, who’s been on the panel for two decades, and Jeannie-cho Lee from Korea, who joined in 2009. The trio are tasked with the selection of all wines, Champagnes and Port served by SIA in the air, and the development of SIA’S staff training programme in wine appreciation. There are currently over 100 Singapore Airlines Air Sommeliers – select crew members who provide professional wine service to customers and promote wine knowledge among fellow crew members.
Twice a year, the three consultants convene in Singapore at the SIA Supplies Centre to blind taste their way through approximately 500 wines each time. The ultimate aim is to determine the right quality level and shortlist three to four wines in each category, from white and red wines for Economy Class to First Class pours. As all oenophiles know, nosing and tasting wine on the ground and in the air can vary tremendously. Here’s what we gleaned from the experts while observing the tastings.
PHYSIOLOGICAL CHANGES IN THE AIR
At 35,000 ft, the high altitude and low humidity will tend to change the way people taste. Wines with higher amounts of oak and tannins will taste more pronounced, so the consultants are tasting for fruit vitality and liveliness, which will fare better when compared to heavier wines. Some of the same producers come up year after year as they deliver the style that the panel is looking for. For instance, Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve, which received the nod for its vivacious nutty notes for Business Class.
BETTER AIRCRAFT AIR QUALITY
Unlike the Boeing 777s introduced in the 1990s, today’s new-generation planes such as the Airbus A380 boasts superior air management, which does not dry out the nasal membranes as much as before. While wines still “struggle a bit up there”, Hill-smith says that newer planes can accommodate more diversity in styles of wine served on board. However, the judges are wary of wines that are too old, with a telltale browning around the rim on an older red Burgundy, for instance. While the wine would be delightful on the ground, with a good five more years’ ageing potential, it would not work in the air, where customers would be looking for something fresher.
SPACE FOR NATURAL WINES
While minimal intervention-style wines are gaining popularity, experts are still debating its merits in the air as many of these wines simply don’t travel well and also don’t have the volume for guaranteed supply. However, Hill-smith notes that during blind tastings, many respected organic and biodynamic wines, such as Rhone Valley’s M. Chapoutier, do get selected and placed on board.
All three experts agree that wine is often served too cold during service, as the bottles are necessarily stored in chillers. Lee names the Pauillac Second Growth Château Pichon-longueville Comtesse de Lalande 2007 as a gorgeous, perfumed wine that ideally needs to breathe to enjoy its full characteristics. “Warm it up in your hands and let it get up to 15˚C,” she recommends.
NEW WORLD RISING
While Old World wines are to be expected in First and Business Class, with red and white Grand Cru Burgundy being the most sought after, wines from Chile and Argentina have come up with quality. After tasting each wine, the judges will then confer a score, with a minimum of Bronze for Economy Class, Silver for Business Class, and Gold for First Class and Suites.