This is your captain speaking. Fasten your seatbelts ladies and gentlemen please as we’re anticipating a degree of turbulence and we’re not sure how long it will last. 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 airlines wines from 26 business and first class airline lists for the Business Traveller Cellars in the Sky Awards, in association with Wine & Spirit, announced this week.
We kicked off with a slew of business class whites. Divided roughly equally between white burgundy and other styles, white burgundy 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 an evidently superior budget behind them, first class whites showed greater imagination. There were a number of fancy white burgundies but overall it was still the juicy, fruity and refreshing New Zealand sauvignons, north Italian white blends, New World chardonnays and rieslings that caught the eye and palates of the judges.
The pattern of largely traditional but predicatable selections was repeated with the reds. The majority in any one style was red Bordeaux as you might expect. Not however with quite the same dire consequences. Indeed there were a handful of juicy modern delicious clarets you’d be only too happy to be strapped into your business class seat to enjoy. Even so, too many clarets were either long in the tooth or too tannic and not fruity enough to be much fun in the air. In contrast, pinot noir and Australian shiraz tended to show much better.
Champagnes were as up and down as the proverbial wedding nightie. Business class contained a large number of so-so champagnes with a few crackers, notably Charles Heidsieck. First class was also more variable than you might expect but at least showed the benefit of superior buying power with more highlights and some world-class prestige cuvées like the 1997 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne and 1985 Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires that really delivered on quality.
For some reason, it looks as though most airlines are locked in a time warp in which they seem happier to trawl the traditional wine trade for a name at the expense of flavour. Do they select wines they think their passengers will want to drink because of the intrinsic quality and flavour? Or do they stuff the business and first class cabins with posh labels because of what they think their executive high fliers expect? The answer is most cases is the latter, playing safe in other words with unimaginative buying based on status rather than the liquid in the bottle.
The problem is that this policy doesn’t cater for the enjoyment factor except in the case of top champagnes, most of which at least, in both business class and first, are the real deal. In fact, if you’re sufficiently heeled to be travelling business or first, you’re often better off going for the champagne with your meal than much of the boring white burgundy on offer because the policy of buying by rote doesn’t work with white wines, particularly burgundy, and to a certain extent in the case of reds, with claret.
Given today’s astonishing proliferation of wines of character, personality and flavour, there’s really 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 that their business and first class customers can enjoy from their cocooned comfort zones without having to fasten their seatbelts for the wine alone.
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
Business Class Dessert. American Airlines: La Plaza Vieja, Medium Golden, Emilio Lustau, Spain
First Class Dessert. Qatar Airways: 2005 Domaine Weinbach Clos des Capucins Gewürztraminer Furstentum Grand Cru, Vendages Tardives, France
Business Class Fizz. Singapore Airlines: Charles Heidsieck Champagne, 2003 Mise en Cave
First Class Fizz. Lufthansa: Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 1997
BUSINESS CLASS FIRST CLASS
1st American Airlines 1st Qantas
Runners-up Air France Runners-up Lufthansa
Air New Zealand Asiana Airlines
MOST INFORMATIVE WINE LIST: Air New Zealand
CONSISTENCY IN BUSINESS and FIRST
Something For the Weekend 9 February 2008
Under a Fiver
2006 Chateau Campredon, Saint Chinian, £3.99, if you buy two, otherwise £4.99, Majestic.
Spicy and peppery on the nose, this blend of old vine syrah and grenache shows good the robust southern French character of a syrah-based red with attractively spicy black fruits richness and the rounding touch of oak needed to smooth out the rustic tannins.
Under a Tenner
2007 Knappstein Winery Ackland Vineyard Riesling, Clare Valley, £9.99, Marks & Spencer
The riesling revival gathers momentum daily, thanks in part to sumptuous rieslings like this one from winemaker Paul Smith in the Watervale district of Australia’s Clare Valley: a classic, refreshingly dry, lemon and lime zesty example with its crisp apple, tangy fruitiness.
2002 Ruster Ausbruch Ernst and Herbert Triebaumer, Rust, £21.95, half-bottle, Great Western Wine, Bath, 01225 322810, www.greatwestern.wine.co.uk.
From the family winemaking team of Triebaumer at Rust in Austria’s Burgenland, this is an amazingly fresh and at the same time richly concentrated nectar whose fruit comes across like a glass of liquid crystallised peaches refreshed by an elegant blade of tangy acidity. Perfection.