In a challenging year, the winners of our in-flight wine awards still managed to serve up some sensational bottles.
Late last year, some of the world’s finest wine experts convened to judge our annual Cellars in the Sky awards. Our panel – masters of wine Sarah Abbott, Tim Atkin and Peter McCombie and head judge Charles Metcalfe, co-chairman of the International Wine Challenge – once again returned to select the best bottles served in business and first class in 2020.
Cellars in the Sky has been running since 1985 and, despite everything that came to pass, 2020 marked no exception. In true pandemic style the judges were careful to abide by social distancing rules, with Metcalfe joining in with the two days of tastings from home via Zoom. The circumstances may have changed but the quality of wines was as high as ever and the judges’ discussions just as animated.
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 had to enter at least one red, white and sparkling.
All of the tasting is done blind, with the branding of the 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. “It’s quite unusual to be so monkish about it that you only pay attention to the taste,” Abbott noted – thankfully, our judges’ senses of taste and smell were not impaired.
I watched from a safe distance as they sampled the wines from their respective stations, noting down their findings – cue adjectives such as “expressive”, “aromatic” and “alluring” – before digging into a plate of crackers to cleanse their palate before proceeding. Each judge had their own spittoon to fend off any impending headaches.
In previous years, the judges paired up and tasted half of the entries for each flight. Both teams would put forward their favourite bottles before re-tasting the final selection and awarding Gold, Silver, Bronze and, occasionally, Highly Commended. This year marked a first in the history of Cellars in the Sky, with each judge tasting every single entry individually – a silver lining of social distancing – before convening to review the wines and mark them out of 100.
When it came to scoring the bottles, the judges tended to agree on their verdicts, trusting each other’s expertise. If there was any dispute they would amicably taste them again and find reason to compromise. “For me, that’s the joy of collegiate tasting. You feed off each other and that’s a really positive thing,” McCombie noted. Disagreement can also be constructive, with the judges “engaging with the wine a bit more deeply”, according to Abbott.
WHAT THE JUDGES LOOK FOR
This competition requires a slightly different approach to judging wines, as our experts are tasked with discovering bottles that perform well at 35,000 feet and offer great balance and structure. For this reason, particular wines may not always receive the same adulation as they might in other contests, which often focus on the potential for them to develop and improve over time. Cellars in the Sky is all about “looking for pleasure now”, as Metcalfe put it. The judges have to ask themselves how much a wine is going to satisfy business and first class passengers during a finite journey.
More expressive and fruity wines seem to do the trick in dryer atmospheres on board. White wines tend to fare better as reds are high in tannins, which aren’t well suited to the air. To be considered contenders, red wines should have “tannins that are even more gentle than they would be on the ground, and acidity not too high”, Metcalfe said.
Traditional Bordeaux reds are often selected by airlines as they are produced in large quantities and tend to please passengers who expect a “top-class” label. The issue, however, is that they don’t have the friendliest of tannins. That said, Bordeaux wines can, and do, still claim top prizes, with a “very classy” 2009 vintage from Qatar Airways winning the award for Best First Class Red. “[It] comes from a vintage that is not only 11 years old but a ripe, warm vintage whose tannins have softened more quickly than others,” Metcalfe said.
This brings us to one of the main challenges faced by carriers, which is that first and business class flyers often expect to see a prestigious wine on board yet may be unaware that it doesn’t perform quite as well in the air. “We’ve often said that we would like to see greater diversity of wine styles that are specifically better suited to the air,” Atkin said. “We always come up against this kind of snobbery factor. That’s one of the things airlines are balancing, as well as massive budget strains.”
Abbott added: “[Carriers] tend to act like ‘in the air’ supermarkets so they’re all set up for efficiency, provisioning and logistics, whereas in fact their customers in business and first class think of them as luxury hotels in the sky. The challenge for airlines is to adopt the kind of sourcing mentality that a top restaurant, hotel or sommelier does.”
With airlines facing huge financial strain, one wonders what effect this will have on wine selections in the next few years. Cuts will be essential, and it may be that food and drink bear some of the brunt.
What do the judges think about this? “Because we’re wine lovers, we would argue that for some customers there’s a big plus in knowing that [an airline] is going to have good wines,” McCombie said. Abbott noted that passengers wouldn’t want “these kind of transcendent luxury experiences” to disappear any time soon.
Perhaps a compromise can be found? Metcalfe imagines that airlines will continue to buy high-class sparkling wines. “It makes an initial great impression. If you see that [the glass] comes from a posh bottle of champagne, that reassures the passenger that they have bought the right ticket.”
Most important, however, in a year that was incredibly difficult for the aviation industry, the judges were delighted that carriers continued to take part in the competition. And, with that, here are the bottles that impressed them the most. Our congratulations to the winners and sincere thanks to all of the airlines that entered.
For the full list of winning and shortlisted airlines in the Cellars in the Sky 2020 awards, see: