The bottles have been uncorked, the contents swirled and sampled, the scores counted, and it’s now time to reveal the winners of our annual Cellars in the Sky airline wine awards.
Over two heady days in December, a crack team of some of the finest palates known to the wine world convened to find the finest bottles served on board business and first class last year. Tucked away in a room along a warren of corridors in London’s Grosvenor hotel, the intoxicating (quite literally) fragrance of wine heavy in the air, our judges – Sarah Abbott, Sam Caporn, Peter McCombie and head judge Charles Metcalfe – gradually sorted out the best from the rest.Making the GradeBusiness Traveler’s Cellars in the Sky awards have been running since 1985. This year, 33 airlines entered, with judges sampling about 240 bottles to find the winners.
The competition is open to any carrier that serves wine in business or first class on mid- or long-haul, with each carrier able to enter two reds, two whites, a sparkling and a fortified or dessert wine from both cabins. Although they can compete in as many categories as they like, to be eligible for the overall award of Best Cellar they had to enter at least one red, white and sparkling wine.
The tasting and assessment process is democratic. The judges blind-taste all of the wines independently of each other. Once they have made their own assessment for each bottle, they form pairs and run through the wines, giving each a mark out of 100. That score decided, the group convenes to reach a consensus on a final mark. Where consensus cannot be found, the scores are tallied and the average taken.
“To be a good judge,” McCombie says, “you have to have a healthy enough ego to believe in yourself for the tasting to succeed, but also be able to accept the opinions of others.”What Works Best in the Air?When we ask the judges what is the best wine to drink in the air, invariably they say whites tend to be a better bet than reds. That advice seems to be doubly true this time – the judges are full of enthusiasm for the quality of the white wines in first class.
Because altitude affects our sense of taste, white wines with gentler acidity and red wines with lower tannins work best. All the same, buyers also have to meet the expectations of first and business class passengers – a discerning bunch. So it’s a fine balance.
Bordeaux reds aren’t generally the best choice; softer, fruitier reds usually work better in the air. A producer’s second Bordeaux might actually work better in the air than its number one offering. “Red is harder to taste than white,” explains Caporn. In fact, the judges say that they preferred the red wine offering in business class.
Nevertheless, after hours of rigorous tasting, our intrepid judges found much to like about this year’s entrants. Turn the page to discover our worthy winners…
Best in First Class Red
Joseph Drouhin Côte de Beaune 2015, Burgundy, France
Judges said: Ripe, succulent and elegant red fruit aromas; petite, neat and delightful.
Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2016, Sonoma County, US
Judges said: Charming, sweet, fruited, classy. Plump, ripe and succulent.
Château Léoville Barton 2012, Saint-Julien, Bordeaux, France
Judges said: Tight, serious, classic left-bank red. Fine but accessible.
Château Ducru-Beaucaillou 2009, Saint-Julien, Bordeaux, France
Judges said: Cedar spice and ripe fruit. Serious style with ripeness and structure. Seamless and polished.
Best First Class White
Penfolds Reserve Bin 15A Chardonnay, 2015, Adelaide Hills, Australia
Judges said: Smoky, flinty, classy aromas. Very polished, elegant, balanced and complex.
Flametree SRS Wallcliffe Chardonnay 2016, Margaret River, Australia
Judges said: Lively, seductive, toasty, subtle aromas. Tangy freshness with apple and apricot flavors.
Lamblin and Fils Chablis 1er Cru Fourchaumes, 2016, France
Judges said: Precise, honeysuckle, savory aromas; intriguing, taut and classy.
Palliser Estate Chardonnay 2016, Martinborough, New Zealand
Judges said: Toffee and butterscotch aromas with notes of lime and flint. Beautifully made.
Best First Class Sparkling
Air France, Cathay Pacific, Qantas
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2006, France
Judges said: Rich and complex with toasty aromas, yet gentle, with soft bubbles and a creamy texture. Very good indeed.
ANA, Qatar Airways
Champagne Krug 2004, France
Judges said: Seductive, complex and balanced, with aromas of praline and lemon zest. Exotic but not showy.
Dom Pérignon 2006, Champagne, France
Judges said: Understated, complex. Flavors unfurl in layers, eventually revealing the power. Bracing and intricate.
Champagne Louis Roederer, Cristal, Brut, 2009, France
Judges said: Tight, linear and steely. Intricate with a precise texture. Great length.
Best First Class Fortified/Dessert
Barbeito Madeira Malvasia 20 year old, Portugal
Judges said: Rich and vibrant, with tangy acidity, roasted nuts and mandarin peel flavors. Balanced sweetness.
Warre’s Otima Single Year Tawny Colheita Port 2006, Portugal
Judges said: Fig and prune aromas, with juicy fruit focus. Pure and stylish.
Morris of Rutherglen Wines Old Premium Rare Liqueur Muscat, Australia
Judges said: Raisins, figs, mint and dried grape aromas. Very sweet with balancing acidity. Satisfying molasses finish.
Best First Class Cellar
Bronze Cathay Pacific
Best Presented First Class Wine List
Highly Commended ANA
Best Business Class Red
Elderton Shiraz 2015, Barossa Valley, Australia
Judges said: Blackcurrant berries and spice. Generous and soft with a good backbone and refined power.
Air New Zealand
Lowburn Ferry Home Block Pinot Noir 2014, Central Otago, New Zealand
Judges said: Beguiling, fresh, juicy, red fruits with a slinky texture. Joyously drinkable.
Olianas Perdixi 2016, Gergei, Sardinia, Italy
Judges said: Succulent and elegant with lots of character. Not an obvious wine but exudes class.
Best Business Class White
Sandhi Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay 2015, California, US
Judges said: Fragrant, fresh and appealing with cool orchard fruit and elderflower. A pure, seductive finish.
De Bortoli La Bohème Act One Riesling, 2016, Yarra Valley, Australia
Judges said: Classic Riesling with a tight, taut, floral palate, delicate texture, lemon and lime fruit and a gently off-dry finish.
Pascal Jolivet Sancerre Montagu 2016, France
Judges said: Alluring and flinty, with mouth-watering acidity balancing a succulent palate of white peach and roasted nuts. Finishes lively, uplifting and fresh.
Best Business Class Sparkling
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, Blanc de Blancs, 2006, France
Judges said: Rich, complex toasty aromas, yet gentle, with soft bubbles and creamy texture. Very good indeed.
Delamotte Blanc de Blancs 2007, Champagne, France
Judges said: Complex toffee, with a hint of apples and pastry. Hidden layers on the palate; fresh, vigorous and subtle.
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, Blanc de Blancs 2007, France
Judges said: Very appealing, rounded with lemon taste notes. Restrained, needs patience, but delicious.
Best Business Class Fortified/Dessert
Baileys of Glenrowan Founder Series Classic Muscat, Victoria, Australia
Judges said: Wonderful dried fruit aromas of fig, prunes and sultanas, together with fresh green figs. Very sweet but not cloying.
Air New Zealand
Forrest Botrytised Riesling 2016, Wairau Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
Judges said: Lovely grapefruit and honey flavors. Beautiful sweetness, creamy texture. Balance and freshness.
Château Guiraud 1er Grand Cru Classé en 1855, 2014, Sauternes-Barsac, France
Judges said: Very ripe, honeysuckle, poached quince and barley sugar aromas. Opulent but really lively with a tangy acidity.
Grahams 10 Year Old Tawny Port, NV, Porto Duro, Portugal
Judges said: Honeyed, heady and intense; a lovely blend of old wines and young. Very balanced.
Best Business Class Cellar
Gold British Airways
Silver Qatar Airways
Best Presented Business Class Wine List
Gold EVA Air
Best Airline Alliance
Best Overall Cellar
Silver Cathay Pacific
Bronze ANA, Qatar Airways
Aegean, Aer Lingus, Aeroflot, Aircalin, Air Canada, Air France, Air Italy, Air New Zealand, Air Tahiti Nui, American Airlines, ANA, British Airways, Brussels Airlines, Cathay Dragon, Cathay Pacific, Delta Air Lines, EVA Air, Finnair, Garuda Indonesia, Iberia, Icelandair, Japan Airlines, Jetblue, Korean Air, Malaysia Airlines, Oman Air, Qantas, Qatar Airways, South African Airways, Singapore Airlines, Sri Lankan Airlines, TAP Air Portugal, Virgin Atlantic.
Our sincere thanks to all participants.