Over two busy days at the end of November, some of the world’s top wine experts assembled to select the best bottles served by airlines in business and first class in 2019. Our judges – masters of wine Sarah Abbott, Tim Atkin and Peter McCombie, journalist and wine writer Kathryn McWhirter and head judge Charles Metcalfe, co-chairman of the International Wine Challenge – took up residence at London’s Amba Hotel Grosvenor in Victoria to conduct extensive tastings.

Business Traveler’s Cellars in the Sky awards has been running since 1985. This year, 35 airlines entered, with judges sampling more than 250 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 routes, with each airline invited to enter two reds, two whites, a rosé (a new category), 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.

All of the tasting is done blind, meaning the judges are not aware of the wine make or the airline that entered it. Given their extensive knowledge, “blind tasting is the only way to do it properly,” Metcalfe says.

To ensure their anonymity, bottles were encased in black plastic bags labeled simply with a letter and two numbers. I watched, for example, as the judges silently filled their glasses with the first flight of first class white wines – or, as they had come to be known, FC1 (followed by an additional number to differentiate each entry).

Perhaps silence is misleading. The swirling, smelling and swishing of the contents did create a rather amusing chorus of sounds, interjected by a few remarks as the experts jotted down notes on their trusty clipboards.

Other senses were called upon, too, with the judges holding their glasses up to the light to examine the appearance of the wines. To avoid lingering headaches, spittoons were arranged around the room – although these tended to lose their purpose during the final flight of first class sparkling wine, which, as McCombie chuckled, was “basically a pleasure.” A plate of crackers provided a much-needed palate cleanser between flights.

How the Wines Are Assessed 
The judges paired up and tasted half of the entries for each flight. Once they had tasted them independently, they convened in their pairs and compared findings, scoring the wines out of 100. I watched as they discussed their remarkably close scores, which were averaged to get a fair mark. Team A then picked their favorite wines of the flight and put them up against Team B’s selection, with the quartet then re-tasting the final selection and awarding Gold, Silver, Bronze and sometimes Highly Commended. “By the time we get to the final top winners, they’re bloody good wines and they’ve been through the mill to get there,” Metcalfe explains.

Broadly speaking, the judges tended to agree, but disagreements were always welcomed as they were “a way to get deeper into the wine,” Abbott notes. “We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” Metcalfe adds, although Atkin quickly tweaked this to “our likes and dislikes.”

Up in the Air 
While our judges have their feet on solid ground, they are well versed in the quality of wines at 35,000 feet. Experts in the field – or air, should we say – they look for balance and structure. White wines, I was repeatedly told, perform better than reds as the latter are high in tannins, which are more pronounced in the air and thus more intrusive. “What you tend to find is wines that have a kind of juiciness, a succulence about them, and have aromatic generosity, can work really well in the air,” Abbott said. “You don’t want anything too lean or austere.” Mature wines are preferred, but it can be hard to find these in the large quantities needed.

Red Bordeaux wines are often served on board as the estates, by and large, produce enormous quantities, but these don’t tend to fare well at a high altitude. That said, this time the competition saw some well-chosen Bordeaux, with great fruity vintages that had had time to age. “When you do find something like a posh red Bordeaux which is smooth, nicely mature and doesn’t have too frightening tannins, that’s a really significant achievement,” Metcalfe says.

Carriers also have to bear in mind that first and business class passengers have forked out a lot of money for the fares, and so expect an ultra fine-dining experience. “Just imagine knocking that back, falling asleep on your first class bed and waking up in Tokyo,” Abbott remarks enthusiastically. Meeting such elevated expectations is no easy feat, but Abbott applauds the carriers: “Overall, they overcome these challenges brilliantly.”

So how do airlines go about grabbing a coveted Gold medal? It’s all about “good, sensitive buying,” according to Abbott. “The airlines that maybe don’t do so well are perhaps buying on label or prestige,” she says. McCombie adds, “Sometimes those wines don’t shine in the air.” Still, I was assured that some luxury names had been very well chosen.

A Taste of Tomorrow
So what does the future hold for inflight wine? The aviation industry is constantly evolving, and new aircraft types with higher cabin pressures create a different environment for how passengers taste them.

“[The wines] should be more forgiving because low pressure and low humidity are definitely not favorable to enjoying wine,” McCombie explains. Metcalfe agrees: “It dries you out as a person and therefore dries out the inside of your mouth. That’s part of the reason you feel the tannins more.”

Abbott adds: “I think those new cabins are trying to replicate more closely the conditions when you’re not in the sky. So I suppose the effect they would have for wine is that they would bring it closer to a natural environment on the ground.”

Then there’s the fact that Asia is a fast-growing airline market, and countries in this region are also starting to produce wines. For the moment, the airlines’ selections often remain traditional and conservative – French-focused old world wines still being a favorite – reflecting the expectations of passengers. Atkin comments: “The airlines are, in some senses, ten years behind the curve.”

The consensus is that European wines will perform better than Asian wines in the current climate, although the arrival of wines from China “might not be too far away,” Atkin suggests. In the meantime, here are the bottles that came out on top this year. Our congratulations to all the winners.


Competing Airlines
Aegean, Aer Lingus, Aeroflot, Aircalin, Air Canada, Air Italy, Air New Zealand, Air Tahiti Nui, American Airlines, ANA, Austrian Airlines, British Airways, Brussels Airlines, Cathay Dragon, Cathay Pacific, Delta Air Lines, Emirates, Etihad Airways, EVA Air, Finnair, Gulf Air, Icelandair, Japan Airlines, Jetblue, Jetstar, Korean Air, LATAM, Malaysia Airlines, Oman Air, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, TAP Air Portugal, Virgin Atlantic, Westjet.

Our thanks to all the airlines that took part.

Winning Reds
BEST FIRST CLASS RED
Gold
ANA
Domaine David Duband, Nuit-Saint-Georges Les Pruliers 1er cru 2017, Burgundy, France
Judges said: Dark, alluring and perfectly complex. Incredibly good.
Score: 98

Silver
Emirates
Les Forts de Latour 2005, Pauillac, Bordeaux, France
Judges said: Great drinkability and maturity with a lovely classic Bordeaux palate.
Score: 97

Bronze
Qantas
Giant Steps Tarraford Vineyard Syrah 2018, Tarrawarra, Yarra Valley, Australia
Judges said: Fragrant and crowd-pleasing. Very good for the air.
Score: 96.5

BEST BUSINESS CLASS RED
Gold

Air New Zealand
Brennan B2, 2016, Queenstown, Central Otago, New Zealand
Judges said: Lovely fresh, juicy red fruits with some oak. A lovely balance and very elegant. A sexy crowd pleaser.
Score: 96

Silver (joint)

Air New Zealand
Trinity Hill Homage Syrah, 2015, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Judges said: Charming and delightful. Savory and oaky. Firm with rather dry tannins.

Etihad Airways
Turkey Flat Butchers Block Red 2016, Barossa Valley, Australia
Judges said: Ripe with a hint of sweet oak. Has an intense, long palate.

Qatar Airways
Astelia Syrah, 2017, Languedoc-Roussillon, France
Judges said: Delightful oak and gentle tannins; fresh, juicy.
Score: 95

Bronze

Singapore Airlines
Catena Paraje Altamira Malbec 2016, Mendoza, Argentina
Judges said: Attractive raspberry nose. Soft with sweet oak and a long palate.
Score: 93

Winning Whites

BEST FIRST CLASS WHITE
Gold
Qantas
Shaw and Smith Lenswood Vineyard Chardonnay 2017, Adelaide Hills, Australia
Judges said: Modern, rich, ripe and toasty. Very good.
Score: 98

Silver

Cathay Pacific
Nik Weis St Urbans-Hof Saarfeilser GG 2016, Mosel, Germany
Judges said: Delicious and fragrant; a lean, fresh palate.
Score: 97

Bronze

Malaysia Airlines
Palliser Estate Chardonnay 2016, Martinborough, New Zealand
Judges said: Wonderful modern, oaky, elegant chardonnay.
Score: 96

Highly Commended (joint)

Cathay Dragon
Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc 2017, Marlborough, New Zealand
Judges said: Classy, fresh and balanced with crisp acidity.

Singapore Airlines
By Farr Chardonnay 2018, Geelong, Victoria, Australia
Judges said: Lovely depth and texture while still gentle and delicate.
Score: 95

BEST BUSINESS CLASS WHITE

Gold
ANA
Stella Bella Skuttlebutt Sauvignon Semillon 2018, Forest Grove, Margaret River, Australia
Judges said: Delightfully fresh with grassy aromas. Wonderfully aromatic with a hint of oak.
Score: 97

Silver

Air New Zealand
Kumeu River Maté’s Vineyard 2016, Kumeu, Auckland, New Zealand
Judges said: Modern and smart with hints of citrus and toast. A lovely crisp, fresh palate.
Score: 96

Bronze

Virgin Atlantic
Van Volxem Saar Riesling 2016, Mosel, Germany
Judges said: Modern and complex with a nice fragrant and appley intense nose.
Score: 95

Winning Roses

BEST FIRST CLASS ROSE
Gold
American Airlines
Château Gassier Le Pas du Moine Côtes de Provence Rosé 2018, Sainte-Victoire, France
Judges said: Lean and fresh with a bright, tangy palate.
Score: 95

Silver

Korean Air
Château d’Esclans Les Clans Rosé 2017, Côtes de Provence, France
Judges said: Refined and complex but well balanced.
Score: 94

Bronze

Etihad Airways
Château Les Valentines Rosé 2018, Côtes de Provence, France
Judges said: Had some great character as well as freshness and balance.
Score: 93

BEST BUSINESS CLASS ROSE

Gold
Air New Zealand
Two Rivers Isle of Beauty Rosé 2018, Southern Valleys, Marlborough, New Zealand
Judges said: Fresh, crisp, delivering a zesty palate with a clean, dry finish.
Score: 90

Silver (joint)

ANA
Château La Castille Rosé 2018, Côtes de Provence, France
Judges said: Clean and fresh with a touch of pear drop.

Emirates, Korean Air
Whispering Angel Rosé 2018, Côtes de Provence, France
Judges said: Crisp with redberry fruits and good acidity.
Score: 89

Bronze (joint)

Air Tahiti Nui
Perle de Roseline Rosé 2018, Côtes de Provence, France
Judges said: Clean, fresh and attractive with bright berry tones.

Jetstar
De Bortoli Rosé, 2019, King Valley, Victoria, Australia
Judges said: Peachy and crisp; a light-bodied palate.
Score: 88

Winning Sparkling

BEST FIRST CLASS
SPARKLING
Gold
Cathay Dragon
Champagne Rare Millesimé 2002, Piper-Heidsieck, France
Judges said: Restrained, with toasty intensity. Absolutely fab.
Score: 98

Silver

Singapore Airlines
Champagne Krug 2004, France
Judges said: Really impressive. Gentle and toasty. Very drinkable.
Score: 97

Bronze

Emirates
Champagne Dom Pérignon 2002 Plénitude 2, France
Judges said: Rich and creamy, with real depth on the nose.
Score: 96

BEST BUSINESS CLASS

SPARKLING
Gold
Malaysia Airlines
Champagne Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2007, France
Judges said: Lovely – complex and serious with an interesting long palate.
Score: 98

Silver

Air Tahiti Nui
Champagne Charles Heidsieck Rosé Réserve, France
Judges said: Complex and very complete. Rich and long with lots of depth.
Score: 97

Bronze

EVA Air
Champagne Castelnau Millésimé 2006, France
Judges said: Complex, with a hint of honey and lemon curd. Good acidity. Really classy.
Score: 96

Highly Commended (joint)

Aircalin
Champagne Pol Roger Réserve, France
Judges said: Rich; serious. Really good for business class.

Korean Air
Champagne Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut, France
Judges said: Fresh, bright, vigorous and youthful.
Score: 95

Winning Fortified/Dessert

BEST FIRST CLASS
FORTIFIED/DESSERT
Gold
Emirates
Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2013, South Africa
Judges said: Deep and sweetly intense. Wonderfully long and incredibly good.
Score: 98

Silver

Qantas
Morris of Rutherglen Old Premium Rare Liqueur Muscat, Rutherglen, Australia
Judges said: Classy and outstanding.
Score: 97

Bronze

Cathay Dragon
Lions de Suduiraut 2015, Sauternes, Bordeaux, France
Judges said: Rich, honeyed with a lovely lift. Very classy.
Score: 96

BEST BUSINESS CLASS

FORTIFIED/DESSERT
Gold
Emirates
Dow’s Colheita Port 1992, Douro Valley, Portugal
Judges said: Appealing layered nose with nutty and dried fruit aromas. Gentle and easy in the air.
Score: 96

Silver

Cathay Dragon
Château Filhot 2014, Sauternes, Bordeaux, France
Judges said: Intense, ripe fruit; layers of spice and botrytis.
Score: 95

Bronze

Oman Air
Château Suau 2016, Sauternes, Bordeaux, France
Judges said: Good Sauternes, creamy, honeyed and sweet.
Score: 94

Winning Cellars

BEST FIRST CLASS
CELLAR
Gold – Qantas
Silver – Cathay Pacific
Bronze – ANA,
Singapore Airlines

BEST-PRESENTED
FIRST CLASS WINE LIST
Gold – Singapore Airlines

BEST BUSINESS CLASS
CELLAR
Gold – Malaysia Airlines
Silver – Qatar Airways,
Air New Zealand
Bronze – Aer Lingus

BEST-PRESENTED
BUSINESS CLASS WINE LIST
Gold – Singapore Airlines

Overall
BEST OVERALL CELLAR
Gold – Malaysia Airlines
Silver – ANA
Bronze – Cathay Pacific

BEST AIRLINE ALLIANCE
Oneworld