Sublime, that one. Really leads you down the garden path.” “I liked the nose, I just thought it was too sweet. Doesn’t really lift your shirt, does it?” “It’s just what you’d want to wake up to on an airplane. Are we talking posh Aussie here?”

Not quotes from an online dating app, just typical discussions after a morning’s professional wine tasting by some of the best-trained palates in the world, all of them remarkably sober (though the spittoons were full).

The judges were taking part in Cellars in the Sky, a two-day event to identify the best wines currently served by airlines. 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).

With labels and even bottle shape hidden, the wines can be judged purely on their performance relative to each other; then whittled down to a consensus of gold, silver and bronze medals. Once the winners are declared, there’s the great reveal as the bags come off.

How We Picked Winners  

Airlines could take part in Cellars in the Sky provided 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.

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.

After tasting around 250 bottles from 32 carriers, our expert panel of judges has crowned the winners of the Business Traveler Cellars in the Sky Awards 2017.  Head judge Charles Metcalfe, co-chairman of the International Wine Challenge and a wine taster for Cellars in the Sky for more than 30 years, gave out the awards at a reception on Feb. 19, 2018, at Trinity House in London’s Tower Hill.

How the Palate Changes in the Air

The enjoyment of wine is challenged by aircraft conditions. Cabin air pressure is low (around three-quarters of sea-level pressure) and the air is drier (7 to 15 percent humidity instead of the usual 50 to 70 percent). The sense of taste depends on the sense of smell, and both are adversely affected.

Research on the effects of space flight on smell show that lower air pressure reduces the air circulation in the nasal mucosa (the lining of the nasal passages), which is responsible for the transfer of aromatic compounds to the olfactory receptors that detect aromas. Dry air also makes aromatic perception more difficult, while vibrations and sound have been shown to heighten the perception of bitterness and acidity and reduce the perception of sweetness.

At the Fraunhofer Institut in Holzkirchen, Bavaria, a hyperbaric chamber is used to replicate aircraft conditions. This pressurized replica cabin is used for tasting in-flight meals and drinks. The Institut’s research, in collaboration with Markus Del Monego MW (one of the world’s top sommeliers), has made many discoveries but three key findings include:

•  Aromatic perception on board is lower, so wines taste weaker (lower in alcohol) than they are.

• Acidity and bitterness perception increases.

• Sweetness (and saltiness) perception decreases.

Wines with more fruit, and lower acidity and tannins will perform better in the air; wines that are tannic will have that bitter quality exaggerated. The Cellars in the Sky judges take these airborne changes into consideration when judging the wines, and when selecting the winners.

Airlines That Entered

Aegean, Aer Lingus, Aeroflot, Air Canada, Air France, Alitalia, American Airlines, All Nippon Airways, Austrian Airlines, British Airways, Brussels Airlines, Cathay Pacific, EVA Air, Finnair, Iberia, Icelandair, Japan Airlines, JetBlue, Jetstar, KLM, Korean Air, LATAM, Malaysia Airlines, Oman Air, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, Sri Lankan, Tarom, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. Our sincere thanks to all participants.



BEST FIRST CLASS RED

Gold Medal:

Oman Air

M Chapoutier Côte-Rôtie les Bécasses 2014, Rhône, France

Judges said: “Very good with lovely raspberry and malt aromas. A classy, fresh and gentle palate.”

Score: 96



Silver Medal:

American Airlines

Catena Zapata Angélica-Zapata Alta Malbec 2013, Mendoza, Argentina

Judges said: “Super saturated, inky color. Like a luxury sleeping draught. Impressive and really lovely to drink.”

Score: 95



Bronze Medal (joint):

Air France

Domaine de Chevalier 2010, Pessac Léognan, Bordeaux, France

Judges said: “Restrained but with a core of sweet, deep fruit and warm, ripe tannins.”



Korean Air

Château du Tertre 2007, Margaux, Bordeaux, France

Judges said: “Appealing pleasant tannins. Well balanced and evolved with floral, tea and sweet spice.”

Score: 94

BEST FIRST CLASS WHITE


Gold Medal:

Qantas

Penfolds Reserve Bin 15A Chardonnay 2015, Adelaide Hills, Australia

Judges said: “Characterful, smart, lively and delicious. Intensely good flavor. Very, very good.”

Score: 96


Silver Medal:

Air France

Joseph Drouhin Chassagne- Montrachet Premier Cru Embrazées 2014, Burgundy, France

Judges said: “Youthful, clean and crisp with a generous creamy, gentle, biscuity palate.”

Score: 95



Bronze Medal:

Qantas

Flametree SRS Wallcliffe Chardonnay 2016, Margaret River, Australia

Judges said: “Lovely and bright with zingy acidity. Yum!”

Score: 94



Highly Commended: Malaysia Airlines

Domaine Trouillet Pouilly-Fuissé Aux Chailloux 2014, Burgundy, France



Singapore Airlines

Dalrymple Cave Block Chardonnay 2014, Pipers River, Australia

BEST FIRST CLASS SPARKLING  

Gold Medal (joint):

Air France

Cathay Pacific

Malaysia Airlines

Qantas


Champagne Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2006, France

Judges said: “Toasty, creamy and subtle with a sensuous smell, almost brooding. Complex and subtle. Very classy.”

Score: 96



Silver Medal:

American Airlines

Champagne Philipponnat Clos Des Goisses Brut 2007, France

Judges said: “Savory, full and rich. Lushly dense and still youthful.”

Score: 95



Bronze Medal (joint):

Qatar Airways

Champagne Krug Grande Cuvée Brut NV, France

Judges said: “Creamy and very elegant, delicate and long.”



Oman Air

Champagne Louis Roederer Cristal 2009, France

Judges said: “Fresh, bright and poised. Super elegant.”

Score 94.5

BEST FIRST CLASS

FORTIFIED/DESSERT


Gold Medal:

Air France

Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey 2009, Sauternes, France

Judges said: “Honeyed, sleek and opulent with a creamy, sweet, nicely balanced palate.”

Score: 95



Silver Medal:

Qatar Airways

Gran Cruz Colheita 1992 Port, Portugal

Judges said: “Rich and punchy with a complex sweet style.”

Score: 94



Bronze Medal:

Qantas

Seppeltsfield Paramount Rare Tokay, Barossa Valley, Australia

Judges said: “Rich, sweet and good. Inky density with raisin and dried figs… and good night.”

Score: 93.5

BUSINESS CLASS

BEST BUSINESS CLASS RED


Gold Medal:

Korean Air

Haselgrove Catkin Shiraz 2014, McLaren Vale, South Australia

Judges said: “A powerful, intense, solid wine with smooth tannins and good length. Very good.”

Score: 95



Silver Medal:

American Airlines

Paul Jaboulet Ainé Les Jalets Crozes-Hermitage 2014, France

Judges said: “Interesting wine with very attractive aromas. A rich earthy palate, balanced, long and serious.”

Score: 94



Bronze Medal:

Singapore Airlines

Dandelion “Lioness of McLaren Vale” 2015, South Australia

Judges said: “A dense palate with deep ripe exotic fruits. Firm with good flavor. Top class.”

Score: 93

BEST BUSINESS CLASS WHITE

Gold Medal:

Singapore Airlines

Coldstream Hills Chardonnay 2015, Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia

Judges said: “An impressive modern wine with a hint of fresh nectarines. It’s super classy, with a lovely texture.”

Score: 96



Silver Medal:

Jetstar

Mud House Woolshed Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2017, Marlborough, New Zealand

Judges said: “Exuberant and elegant, with ripe passion fruit and other tropical fruits. Full, lively and tasty.”

Score: 94



Bronze Medal:

Icelandair

Petit Clos de Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Marlborough, New Zealand

Judges said: “Moreish, juicy stuff with a savory palate, lovely length and lean acidity. Energetic, bright and aromatic.”

Score: 93.5



BEST BUSINESS CLASS

SPARKLING


Gold Medal:

EVA Air

Champagne Delamotte Blanc de Blancs NV, France

Judges said: “Rich and complex, it’s mouth-filling and dense. Exciting, refined, gloriously drinkable.”

Score: 97



Silver Medal (joint):

Air France

Singapore Airlines


Champagne Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV, France

Judges said: “Expressive, with lovely balance. Lime and citrus notes, youthful. Nicely integrated.”

Score: 96



Bronze Medal:

British Airways

Champagne de Castelnau Brut Réserve NV, France

Judges said: “Rich, creamy, and complex with lovely balance. Very attractive and rather good.”

Score: 95



Highly Commended:

Sri Lankan Airlines

Champagne Piper Heidsieck Cuvée Brut NV, France

BEST BUSINESS CLASS

FORTIFIED/DESSERT


Gold Medal:

Qantas

Baileys of Glenrowan Founder Series Classic Muscat, Victoria, Australia

Judges said: “Lovely and lush with toffee aroma. Sweet, smooth and very classy.”

Score: 94



Silver Medal:

Jetstar

De Bortoli Show Liqueur Muscat, Riverina, Australia

Judges said: “Treacly, figgy pudding in a glass. Lush and soft. Very good.”

Score: 93



Bronze Medal (joint):

Aeroflot

Grahams 10 Year Old Tawny Port, Portugal

Judges said: “With an opulent palate, it’s generous and rich with tangy raspberry brûlée and dried fruit.”



Singapore Airlines

Taylors 10 Year Old Tawny Port, Portugal

Judges said: “A classy nose of toffee, raspberry and coffee. Great balance and rich warmth.”

Score: 92.5