Fasten your seatbelts ladies and gentlemen, we're anticipating some turbulence. So it was that before Christmas a small panel of us took a bumpy ride without even reaching an airport, by tasting our way though 229 wines from 26 business- and first-class airline lists for the Business Traveller Cellars in the Sky Awards.
We kicked off with a slew of business-class whites. Divided roughly equally between white burgundy and other styles, the former proved the biggest disappointment. The winning wines, the southern French chardonnay, Cigalus, from Gérard Bertrand in business class and the even weirder and more wonderful Judean Hills Chardonnay from El Al in first showed that originality pays. With a bigger budget, first-class whites showed greater imagination. There were a number of fancy white burgundies but overall it was the juicy and refreshing New Zealand sauvignons, north Italian white blends, New World chardonnays and rieslings that caught the judges' fancy.
The pattern of traditional but predictable selections was repeated with the reds, where Bordeaux predominated. There were a handful of juicy modern clarets you'd be happy to be strapped into your business class seat to enjoy, but too many were either long in the tooth or too tannic and not fruity enough. By contrast, pinot noir and Australian shiraz tended to show much better.
Champagnes were up and down. Business class contained a large number of so-so champagnes with a few crackers, notably Charles Heidsieck. First class was more variable than you might expect but showed the benefit of superior buying power with more highlights and some world-class prestige cuvées like the the 1997 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne and 1985 Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires.
Most airlines seem to be locked in a time warp in which they are happier to invest in a well-known name at the expense of flavour. Do they select wines they think their passengers will want to drink because of their quality and flavour? Or do they stuff the business- and first-class cabins with posh labels because that's what they think their executive high-fliers expect? The answer in most cases is the latter.
The problem is that this policy doesn't cater for the enjoyment factor except in the case of top champagnes, most of which are the real deal. In fact, if you're sufficiently well-heeled to be travelling business or first, you're often better off going for the champagne with your meal rather than many of the boring white burgundies on offer.
Given today's astonishing proliferation of wines of character, personality and flavour, there's no good reason, or indeed excuse, for airlines to go through the motions by relying on old-fashioned and past-their-sell-by date labels. Today's airline wine-buyer or buying team should be confident and experienced enough to choose wines with a little more flair and originality than those currently on offer to fliers.
As far as the results went, overall, in business class, the first place went to American Airlines, with Air France and Air New Zealand runners up, while in first class the winner was Qantas, with Lufthansa and Asiana Airlines runners-up. Here are the individual winners:
Business Class Red Air New Zealand: 2005 Martinborough Vineyard Pinot Noir, Wairarapa, New Zealand
First Class Red Qatar Airways: 2001 Knappstein Shiraz, Clare Valley, Australia
Business Class White Air France: 2005 Gérard Bertrand Domaine de Cigalus, France
First Class White El Al: 2005 Blanc du Castel Chardonnay 'C', Jerusalem Haut Judée, Castel Winery, Israel.Reuse content