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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Oz Clarke

Jean­nie-cho Lee

Michael Hill-smith

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