Cellars in the sky 2014: A vintage year

31 Mar 2015 by Clement Huang
The sipping, swilling and scoring is complete, and the winning airlines have been crowned. After tasting 270 bottles from 35 carriers, our expert judges have picked the winners of the 2014 Business Traveller Cellars in the Sky Awards, presented to the airlines that served the best in-flight wines last year. Head judge Charles Metcalfe, co-chairman of the International Wine Challenge, handed out the trophies at a reception on February 23 at the Hilton London Paddington (hilton.com) – our thanks to Hilton Worldwide for providing the perfect venue. We also held wine tastings of the winning labels at the Business Travel Show at London’s Grand Hall Olympia on February 25-26. Joining Metcalfe on the judging panel were Tim Atkin, Oz Clarke, Peter McCombie, co-chairmen of the International Wine Challenge, and awards chairman Richard Bampfield. CHOOSING THE WINNERS Airlines could participate providing they served wine in business or first class on mid- or 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 that no one was influenced by the labels. The judging took place over two days in December at Grosvenor House, a JW Marriott Hotel on London’s Park Lane (marriott.com) – our thanks to the staff and the critics for all their hard work. Wines were scored out of 100, with award-winning ones rated between 93 and 97, and anything under 75 deemed undrinkable. As Oz Clarke was formerly a wine consultant to SAS, and recently joined the wine selection panel of Singapore Airlines, his scores for wines submitted by these carriers were discounted and these wines were assessed using only other tasters’ scores instead. The judges did not know which wines were submitted by which airlines. 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 The judges felt that the standard of the business class entries was slightly lower than previous years. “There was a slight paring down of the champagne offering in business,” Metcalfe said. “We also felt that the reds were not as uniformly attractive as they had been. In the classic European regions, the past few years have been cooler and damper, which has made it difficult to produce good reds and resulted in some difficult vintages.” He advised: “If you want to put really nice wines in front of your clients, buy something from a part of the world that has not experienced that issue.” Atkin added: “The problem is this prestige-versus-drinkability conundrum. Some people feel insulted at being given a Chilean wine because they think if they’ve paid for a premium class ticket, they deserve a Bordeaux. But actually, they’d be better drinking something from somewhere else, because Bordeaux should not be the default choice to serve in the air – we say this every year.” While their prestige might impress passengers, Bordeaux wines are high in tannins, which have a drying effect, making them less suitable for drinking in cabin conditions where you are more susceptible to dehydration. “After you’ve been in the air for two hours you lose some of your nasal perceptions, but you get just as much tannicity and acidity as ever, and they feel more prominent,” Clarke explained. In first class, it was a different story.“We saw some wonderful Bordeaux, such as a 2004 vintage, which is lovely ten years on, and the entries kept up a high standard of pleasurable drinking from some of the classic regions,” Metcalfe said. The judges also found the first class sparkling wines to be as excellent as ever. Clarke said: “I accept that in first class, perhaps airlines insist that they have the Bordeaux, as the clientele will expect to see it. But business class is about trying to find really good wines that don’t cost as much. “On my last business class flight, I asked the other passengers what the wine label meant to them and they said: ‘Not much.’ They want the wine to taste right, but it doesn’t need to be well-known.” He added: “In the business class entries there should have been more Chilean pinot noirs, more Argentinean malbecs – they work so well in the air.”These fruity New World wines have the flavour to overcome the impairment to one’s sense of smell, and are softer in tannins than Bordeaux. HOW AIRLINES CHOOSE WINE Most carriers blind-taste hundreds of wines to select their list, but methods differ slightly. Garuda Indonesia has a wine panel that not only comprises employees from its in-flight service and food and drink departments but also its top 20 most frequent flyers. Lou D’Alessio, Garuda’s vice-president of in-flight services, said: “Our top frequent flyers are almost as expert as we are in their knowledge and understanding of different wines and regions, so their comments are very useful.” For Finnair, the food served on board is the starting point. Mika Vanne, wine professional for the airline, said: “I studied the food we serve on board, and saw that both the Finnish and Asian dishes would increase the intensity and tannins of the wine, so we needed a light style with good acidity and fruit. We chose very classic wines that were easy-drinking despite being young, as we don’t have the option to buy and store them for five years.” WINE MYTHS BUSTED  “Corked” wine means that cork has been broken into the wine – FALSE  “Cork taint is a result of natural moulds that form chlorine compounds rather than referring to breakage of the cork,” Metcalfe says. “It gives a strange, musty, damp cardboard smell.” Screw caps are inferior to corks – FALSE  “If given a choice, most of the world’s winemakers would opt for screw caps because you don’t get cork taint,” Metcalfe says. Clarke adds: “People used to complain that there was no oxygen in screw-capped wine, but now caps are being made that permit oxygen permeation.” Red wine always needs to breathe – FALSE  “It varies depending on the type and age of the wine,” Metcalfe says. “Simply taking the cork out of the bottle achieves little. You need to expose the entire surface of the wine to oxygen by decanting it. It softens it and gives it a crash course in ageing, and you can do it just as much with white wine as you can with red or port.” All red wine needs to be served at room temperature – FALSE  “Most reds are best served slightly chilled,” Atkin says. “Lighter styles such as pinot noir should be popped in the fridge for about two hours. However, the more tannic the wine is, the more hard and angular it will taste if chilled.”
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