Features

Cellars in the Sky: how we find the best airline wines

1 Mar 2018 by Guy Dimond
Wine Tasting

It mught be tempting to think we simply fly the world business class, sampling wines in situ – and yes, we do that too. But for the annual Cellars in the Sky awards, we need a fairer system which eliminates bias for or against certain airlines, and that also removes bias for or against certain wine producers and labels.

With more than 30 airlines and 250 or more wines to taste, we conduct our tastings at ground level, over two days. Airlines can take part in Cellars in the Sky providing they served wine in business or first class on mid- or long-haul routes. Each airline can enter two reds, two whites, a sparkling and a fortified or dessert wine from both their business and first class cellars. They can compete in as many categories as they like, but to be eligible for the Best Cellar awards, they have to enter at least one red, white and sparkling wine.

Wines are scored out of 100, with award-winning ones rated between 93 and 97, and anything under 75 deemed unpalatable. It couldn’t be fairer; the wine bottles, and the airlines supplying them, are concealed from the impartial experts who taste them all blind (the bottles are hidden inside black bags and identified only by numbers).

For the 2017 Cellars in the Sky, head judge Charles Metcalfe, co-chairman of the International Wine Challenge, was joined by Masters of Wine Sarah Abbott, Tim Atkin, Richard Bampfield and Peter McCombie to taste around 250 wines from 32 airlines.

To calculate the Best First and Business Class Cellar awards, we averaged the marks of an airline’s red, white and sparkling wines. For Best Overall Cellar, we took all scores into account. The Awards were made at a reception on February 19, 2018; the winners for 2017 are listed here.

Cellars in the Sky tasting

Why are wines  marked out of 100?

There are various methods of rating wines including the 20-point system, but the 100-point system (actually a ranking from 50-100) was popularised by the American wine critic Robert Parker through his influential magazine, Wine Advocate. The system is useful as a shorthand among professional wine tasters comparing disparate wines; critics are able to independently rate wines with remarkable consistency.

For Cellars in the Sky, wine is marked independently by four judges, with marks averaged then rounded to a full number.

“Rounded and buttery, I love that taut acidity. I gave it 91,” said one, checking the clipboard. “I gave it 90, but that was three 91s [from the other judges]. So it’s a 91,” summed up Charles Metcalfe, before they moved on to discuss the next concealed bottle. The tasters stay remarkably sober  throughout (though the spittoons become full).

Then at the very end,  after the wines are marked, ranked and the winners chosen, there’s the great reveal as the black plastic bags come off – and the winners are toasted.

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