Who serves the best onboard wine, and which bottles should you choose?
by Hannah Brandler
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