Cellars in the Sky 2022: Top of the Class

1 Mar 2023 by Hannah Brandler
Cellars in the Sky

As travel restrictions eased across the world last year, the winners of our inflight wine awards impressed returning passengers.

Following two years of route disruptions and restrictions on inflight services, the world has reopened and travel is back in full force. This also signalled the end of socially distanced tastings and the return to a normal judging process for our Cellars in the Sky awards, which has been running since 1985.

Late last year, a panel of expert judges convened at Haberdashers’ Hall, in Smithfield, London, to select the best bottles served by airlines in business and first class in 2022. The judges were John Worontschak, Helen McGinn, Masters of Wine Peter McCombie and Sarah Abbott, and head judge Charles Metcalfe, founder of the International Wine Challenge.

“The standard has been more even than previous years,” explains Metcalfe. “There were very few wines that we felt did not perform.” Thankfully the pandemic did not lead to a drop in quality, with airlines continuing to invest in top-class beverages.

How the awards work

The competition is open to any carrier that serves wine in business or first class on mid- or long-haul routes. Each airline is invited to enter two reds, two whites, a rosé, a sparkling, and a fortified or dessert wine from both cabins. They can compete in as many categories as they like but to be eligible for the Best Overall Cellar award, they must enter at least one red, white and sparkling. For 2022, 22 airlines entered.

All tasting is blind, with the branding of bottles hidden beneath black bags labelled with a letter and two numbers – FC1, for instance, means the first flight of first class white wines, with the number differentiating each entry. The judges were unaware of the wine make or the airline that entered it, eliminating any unconscious bias. The judges paired up and tasted half of the entries for each flight, with both teams putting forward their favourite bottles before re-tasting the final selection and marking them out of 100.

Cellars in the Sky judging day

What the judges look for

Unlike other wine competitions, our esteemed judges have the added challenge of putting themselves in the position of passengers on a plane at 35,000 ft. For this reason, their favourite wines on land may not perform well on an aircraft and vice versa.

Acidity and tannin are emphasised at altitude, so the judges look for expressive, bolder, and fruitier wines. “Subtlety can be a little problematic because humidity is low, so passengers dry out and become less sensitive to aromatic things. It’s almost like the aromatics boil off, in a sense,” explains McCombie.

Red wines always present a challenge as they tend to have high tannins but this doesn’t mean you should strike them off. Metcalfe points out that pinot noirs and shiraz from Australia and New Zealand are more gentle and appealing options. McCombie, meanwhile, advocates, for lighter and fresher reds: “It would be nice to see someone getting excited about a good Beaujolais”.

Of course, even wine experts have a personal preference, but the judges recognise their biases and deal with them in a professional manner. “It’s better to acknowledge them than to pretend you don’t have them,” explains McCombie, adding that the collegiate element is critical. While the airlines are in competition with one another, the judges are rather an alliance so there’s certainly “no fisticuffs,” as Metcalfe puts it.

“The strength of the panel format is that it mitigates against a really strong personal preference. We are open to learning from each other and having different perspectives,” adds Abbott. This is why the judges make their own assessment individually and have a discussion afterwards before settling on a final score.

More often than not they are all in agreement. “The winning white wine in first class [Tolpuddle Tasmania Chardonnay, 2018, Australia] absolutely stood out,” says McCombie. The winning wine in the fortified and dessert category for business class [Domaine La Sobilane, Rivesaltes, 1948] also prompted smiles, accompanied by descriptors of “extraordinary” and “historic”.

The joy of this competition is that the wines occasionally even take our judges by surprise. The most off-the-wall entry this year was a niche church wine put forward by Finnair, which achieved a good score despite it not winning an award. “We appreciate when carriers do that, it’s part of the sense of discovery,” long-time judge Abbott adds.

Big expectations

Passengers must set their expensive expectations aside as some of the more well-known and pricier labels don’t do the trick. “The kind of wines that do very well at altitude are not necessarily the most famous, classic wines,” explains Sarah. In fact, a lot of wines selected have come from the New World. “It’s by no means certain that the European wines will win,” Metcalfe adds.

This can often be due to the relatively young nature of the wines, which have not yet harmonised. “You can see it is a wine of quality but in terms of drinking pleasure, it’s not quite there yet,” Abbot tells me. McCombie agrees, stating that such labels “probably would have wowed us with two or three years of bottle age”.

You can never assume that just because it’s a famous label or region, that the wine will do better than less well-known ones. Herein lies the benefit of blind tasting, preventing the judges from being swayed by the name and sticking to the objective: Is it doing the right job for the air?

Future trends

How can airlines aim for the sky in the future? With sustainability on everyone’s mind, and the adverse impact of both first and business class cabins on the environment, the judges are interested in how inflight services will adapt to face the challenge. “We are moving towards a point where an experience or a product will not be deemed luxurious or desired if the price paid damages environments,” explains Abbott. Airline wine buyers will need to adjust their sourcing, opt for responsible suppliers, and promote authentic, and perhaps local, products. “In the same way that we have to consume alcohol responsibly, we need to fly responsibly,” she adds.

And, with that, here are the bottles that impressed our judges the most. Our congratulations to the winners and sincere thanks to all of the airlines that entered and sponsor Whispering Angel.

For the full list of winners and shortlisted wines, click here.

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Business Traveller March 2023 cover
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