Representing the best inflight wines served last year, Cellars in the Sky rewards the airlines’ wine choices in Business and First Class. After months of organisation, more than 220 bottles were intensively blind tasted over two days.
Our five judges were Charles Metcalfe, TV wine presenter and co-chairman of the International Wine Challenge; Joanna Simon, co-founder of the Wine Gang (www.thewinegang.com), author, and wine and food editor for the UK’s House & Garden magazine; Sam Harrop, Master of Wine and winemaking consultant; Derek Smedley, Master of Wine for more than 40 years, consultant and co-chairman of the International Wine Challenge; and Tim Atkin, Master of Wine, wine columnist for The Observer, co-chairman of the International Wine Challenge and co-founder of the Wine Gang.
L-R: Charles Metcalfe, Joanna Simon, Derek Smedley, Sam Harrop.
An awards ceremony was held on February 9 at the Business Travel and Meetings Show at London’s Earls Court, where the winning airlines were presented with their trophies by Charles Metcalfe. The Business Traveller UK team followed up with a special tasting of the winning wines for attendees of our stand at the show.
HOW DO AIRLINES PICK THEIR WINES?
Many airlines conduct their own blind tastings. Cathay Pacific, for example, has wine sent from around the world to its base in Hongkong, employing three wine consultants to make the final choices – Roy Moorfield from Australia, Vic Williams from New Zealand and local wine critic Chi-Sun Lau. The tasting panel meets about five times a year to select the vintages, which, depending on the type, will be served over a few months or a few years. Cathay has about 20 different wine categories of wine, depending on route and class.
Clara Yip, assistant manager of beverage and catering supplies for Cathay, says it is important to get the right bottles onboard. “Wine is a very important part of our inflight experience, as is food,” she says. “Wine drinking is becoming more and more popular in our region, and as the local market matures, our passengers are getting more knowledgeable. They are interested in our wine selection and care about the way it is served onboard.”
Air Astana sources wines from local suppliers and then holds blind tastings of about 40 vintages with its board members, senior managers and frequent flyers. “This democratic process is the key influence on the choice of wines offered, with due consideration given to the overall mix of passengers – the majority being Kazakh and European,” says Graham Hobbs, manager of catering and logistics for the carrier.
SAS works with TV wine presenter Oz Clarke in its selection process, a relationship that arose after Clarke complained about the quality of the Scandinavian carrier’s wines during a Business Traveller Cellars in the Sky tasting in the Eighties. This year, SAS won the Best Business Class White category, with a 2007 Tim Adams Semillon from Clare Valley, Australia.
“SAS is lucky because it is not from a wine-producing region, so there is no pressure to use local wines,” Clarke says. “People are high up in the sky, stressed, and they need to be calmed down with a good glass of wine. We want ours to refresh you.”
Clarke also tries to work with up-and-coming wine makers. “It’s tough getting started in the business and if they get put on a plane it gives them a great opportunity,” he says. SAS buys over 130,000 bottles of red and white wine every year.
Andrea Robinson, Delta’s master sommelier, says that she often tries to match wine to the end destination, so passengers can start their travelling experience on the plane – for example, a good Rioja on flights to Spain. She also likes to choose wine from both “world class and classical regions, along with cutting-edge and rising star areas” with “a little bit of something for everybody onboard… Our goal is to represent destinations that capture the imagination”.
Robinson thinks wine is a critical part of the inflight experience. She says: “If you think about the pleasures of the table, wine is a really key part of it. And it’s such an interactive experience in terms of service because when the crew are attending to the passengers they’re bringing the wine and presenting it and telling them about it.”
She also said that the announcement of the Cellars in the Sky winners is always an exciting time of the year. “It’s something that keeps us on our toes. This market place is a competitive one and these things can be monumental in terms of making the product and the experience memorable.”
WHICH WINES DO WELL?
When tasting, the judges are looking for something that will work well in the air. This means a red wine that doesn’t have too much tannin, as the drying effect can be more pronounced at 35,000 feet, and a white that is not too acidic, as this will also be more apparent. For this reason, grapes that tend to be favoured by the judges are riesling for white wines and pinot noir for reds.
For the judging panel, there are often tough decisions to be made, not least because the tastings are completely blind – unusual for a wine competition, says Harrop. “It’s very difficult for us because we are given no information about the wine,” he says. “In most tastings, we choose the best example of one type of wine from a particular region. Here we know nothing. It’s all about the best wines overall and, of course, the best in the air. Cellars in the Sky is a special competition.”
HOW THE WINNERS WERE CHOSEN
The tastings were held at boutique hotel Malmaison in London’s Charterhouse Square on October 22 and 23, but the planning started long before then. We contacted more than 65 airlines in the summer, inviting them to enter two white wines, two red wines, one sparkling and one fortified or sweet wine, from both Business and First Class.
Airlines didn’t have to enter all the categories, but to be eligible for “Best Cellar” they had to submit at least one red, one white and one sparkling. The wines were then shipped to the Business Traveller office to be unpacked, labelled and reboxed according to category and class.
During the tastings, the wines were given a mark out of 20, and the judges could not confer while doing so. The final results were an average of their marks.
The competition took more than eight months to organise, so here’s a toast to the judges, the Malmaison and its staff, and all the participating airlines.
AIRLINES THAT ENTERED
Cellars in the Sky Awards 2009 had a record number of entries, with 34 airlines taking part. These were: Aer Lingus, Air Astana, Air Baltic, Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Alitalia, American Airlines, ANA, Austrian Airlines, Bmi, British Airways, Brussels Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Delta, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Finnair, Gulf Air, Iberia, Japan Airlines, Jet Airways, Kenya Airways, KLM, Korean Air, LAN, Lufthansa, Mexicana, Qantas, Qatar Airways, SAS, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, TAM Airlines and US Airways. n
WHAT THE JUDGES SAID
The judges thought the entries for 2009 provided some pleasant surprises, with a number of unusual choices. This was perhaps reflective of the economic situation, says Metcalfe. “Airlines are having to be more creative with their wine choices. Rather than choosing an expensive and well-known label, they are choosing lesser-known but much more interesting wines,” he adds.
The judges also commented on the wide range of wines on offer. Smedley says: “Long-haul flights offer business travellers a great opportunity to try a new vintage or grape variety – they have the time to experience and savour new tastes.”
Educating passengers was also important, said the judges, and they commended Air New Zealand, ANA, Qantas and Qatar Airways for providing good-quality reading material for passengers to learn more about the wine world.
FIRST CLASS SPARKLING
1. Lufthansa – Piper-Heidsieck Cuvée Rare, Champagne, France
Score: 19 out of 20
What the judges said:
CM: “Creamy, with a lovely mousse. Palate – bright, appley, dark pinot noir style. Young and will improve, but already very good.”
TA: “Lovely – aromatic, toasty, nutty, complex. Should age nicely. Long, toasty and delicious. Very subtle – yum, yum.”
2. Qantas – Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 1999, Champagne, France
3. Qatar Airways – Laurent Perrier Grand Siècle 1996, Champagne, France
4. Emirates – Dom Pérignon 2000, Champagne, France
5. JOINT: Singapore Airlines, ANA – Krug Grande Cuvée Brut, Champagne, France
FIRST CLASS RED
1. Qantas – Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2005, Canberra, Australia
JS: “Perfumey, varnished cherry nose – lovely. Full, dry, ripe and smooth palate. Lots of fruit. Gentle tannin. Nice oak. A fresh, clean finish.”
SH: “Peppery, spiced, blue fruits. Complex. Intense. Medium palate. Moderate, balanced and, while youthful, tannins have a supple quality. Impressive, modern style.”
2. JOINT: Korean Air – Château Léoville Poyferré 2004, Saint-Julien, France; Emirates – Felton Road Pinot Noir 2008, Bannockburn, Central Otago,
4. JOINT: American Airlines – Chapoutier Coteaux Tricastin 2006, Rhône Valley, France; American Airlines – Château Lynch-Moussas 2006, Pauillac, France;
British Airways – Saint Clair Pioneer Block 4 Pinot Noir 2007, Marlborough, New Zealand
FIRST CLASS WHITE
1. TAM – Michel Picard Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Chalumeaux 2006, Burgundy, France
TA: “Rich strawberry and lemon. Nutty, complex, with struck match notes. Fresh and well integrated oak.”
SH: “Quite mineral. A flinty and serious bouquet. Citrus. Super acidity and freshness. Lovely wine today and better tomorrow.”
2. British Airways – Albert Bichot Meursault 2007, Burgundy, France
3. British Airways – Salomon Lindberg Reserve Gruner Veltliner 2007, Kamptal, Austria
4. Cathay Pacific – Wente Riva Ranch Reserve Chardonnay 2006, Livermore Valley, San Francisco, US
5. Qatar Airways – Saint Clair Pioneer Block 18 Snap Block Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Marlborough, New Zealand
FIRST CLASS FORTIFIED/SWEET
1. Qantas – Morris of Rutherglen Old Premium Liqueur Tokay, Rutherglen, Australia
CM: “Very sweet, treacle and mint. Chocolate as well. Lovely and smooth. Complex.”
JS: “Raisiny, sweet, caramelly,
creamy. Very, very intense and sweet. Fat and opulent.”
2. Emirates – Château Rieussec 2003, Domaines Lafite, France
3. ANA – Taylor’s 20-Year-Old Tawny Port, Douro, Portugal
BUSINESS CLASS SPARKLING
1. Delta – Piper-Heidsieck Brut, Champagne, France
JS: “Fresh, yeasty, appley notes with a touch of marmite. Youthful with some creaminess. Quite dry and full.”
SH: “Fresh, zesty, biscuity. Lovely intensity. Vibrant, rich, soft, with good balance. A show-stopper.”
2. JOINT: Qantas, Singapore Airlines – Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve, Champagne, France
3. Mexicana – Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut, Champagne, France
4. JOINT: Jet, LAN – Louis Roederer Brut Premier, Champagne, France
5. JOINT: Cathay, KLM – Billecart-Salmon Brut, Champagne, France
BUSINESS CLASS RED
1. Cathay Pacific – Spy Valley Pinot Noir Marlborough 2007, Marlborough, New Zealand
CM: “Bright, pinot noir fruit. Raspberry and cherry, herby and juicy. Very good in the air.”
DS: “The mix of black fruits on the nose gives it richness – behind the black cherry and bilberry is fresher mulberry and raspberry. Layers of fruit give complexity. The finish has power, yet a charming underlying fragrance.”
2. Korean Air – Tyrrell’s Rufus Stone Heathcote Shiraz 2005, Hunter Valley, Australia
3. KLM – Tempus Two Barossa Shiraz 2005, Barossa, Australia
4. LAN – Altair 2004, Alto Cachapoal Valley, Chile
5. Alitalia – Barone Ricasoli Castello di Brolio, Casalferro, 2005, Gaiole in Chianti, Tuscany, Italy
BUSINESS CLASS WHITE
1. SAS – Tim Adams Semillon 2007, Clare Valley, Australia
JS: “Biscuity notes. Wheaty, waxy, lemony, fresh. Round palate, nutty. Well made. Serious.”
SH: “Some nice toasty fruit
characters. Very sexy. Super wine. Complex, powerful and supple.”
2. Cathay Pacific – Moët Hennessy, Green Point Reserve Chardonnay 2005, Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia
3. ANA – Weinguter Wegeler, Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Kabinett 2007, Mosel, Germany
4. Qantas – Peter Lehman Wines Eden Valley Riesling 2005, Barossa, Australia
5. Air New Zealand – West Brook Marlborough Riesling 2008, Marlborough, New Zealand
BUSINESS CLASS FORTIFIED/SWEET
1. Lufthansa – Vinhos Niepoort Late Bottled Vintage 2004, Douro, Portugal
CM: “Very ripe, syrupy sweet. Palate – lovely, rich, black fruit. Fine tannins, real personality. Lovely for air.”
DS: “Black cherry and plum vie with bilberry and sloe for dominance, the layers of flavour all adding to the complexity. The tannins are structured but ripe, allowing the richness of the fruit to fill out the back palate.”
2. Singapore Airlines – Graham’s Late Bottled Vintage Port 2003, Douro, Portugal
3. Air New Zealand – Dr John Forrest, Forrest Noble Marlborough Riesling 2008, Marlborough, New Zealand
4. Delta – Chambers Rosewood Vineyards, Muscat a Petit Grains, Rutherglen, Australia
5. Qantas – Baileys of Glenrowan Founder Series Liqueur Muscat, Glenrowan, Australia