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Spectator Wine

Wine on Aeroplanes

Up in the air, sky high, sky high…

29 February 2016

10:27 AM

29 February 2016

10:27 AM

I’m one of those sad folk who rather likes airline food. On those rare occasions I get to turn left, of course, never when I get to turn right. Don’t be daft. And now that they are finally taking it seriously, I rather like airline wine.

Food and drink might only be ninth or tenth on our list of concerns when we book our flight, but by the time we stand at the aircraft’s door it’s second only to who we’re going to sit next to (please God not beside that fat man or that bawling baby). Once we finally buckle our seatbelt, however, our only worry is what we’re going to eat and drink.

The major airlines are among the biggest of all purchasers of wine. British Airways, for example, gets through over two million bottles a year and Emirates, which serves around 60 different wines each day, recently invested US$500m in laying wine down. Indeed, the airline has over one million bottles slowly maturing in its Burgundy cellars alone.

If you fly from Heathrow to the US in Delta’s Business Elite (ranked first in the Business Travel News annual airline survey for four consecutive years) you can drink the likes of Champagne Jacquart Brut Mosaique, 2011 Château Cantemerle and Quinta de la Rosa Tawny Port. Not bad!

Elsewhere, current highlights include 2004 Pol Roger in Qatar Airways Business Class; Bollinger NV Rosé in BA First and 2008 Tapanappa Chardonnay and 2003 Château Léoville-Poyferré in Emirates First. And as regular flyers will know, all the wine on board Virgin is supplied by Berry Bros & Rudd, one of our partners in the Spectator Wine Club. And if you tire of the in-flight movies you can watch five minute videos of Berrys’ Adam Holden taking you through the wine list.

Of course, wine at ground level tastes very different to wine at 35,000 feet. Some years ago one of Air New Zealand’s wine buyers explained to me that it’s all to do with one’s mucus membrane and the olfactory epithelium (nope, nor me) in one’s nasal cavity and the effect upon them of low humidity and cabin pressure. Or something like that.

The gist was that thanks to 15 per cent relative humidity in a pressurised aeroplane cabin (as opposed to normal sea level humidity of 70-90 per cent) astringent tannins and acidity in wine become more pronounced and the effect of dehydration alters our perception of smell. As a result, the most suitable white wines to serve aloft are fruit driven and well balanced, while reds need ripe fruit character with soft tannins and good acidity.

Singapore Airlines won Gold for the Best Overall Wine Cellar at this week’s Business Traveller’s Cellars in the Sky Awards and I recently visited their impressive in-flight catering facilities at Singapore Changi Airport. Here they prepare up to 95,000 meals a day in nineteen different kitchens and hold their wine tastings. There is a hot kitchen and a cold kitchen; a Japanese kitchen, an Indian kitchen and a Muslim kitchen. There is a kitchen devoted to pork and a kitchen devoted to peeling prawns. There is even an egg-peeling room and a room in which they check that each dish has enough protein, starch and colour.

I saw steaks for First Class being cooked and blast-chilled and half a dozen chefs cooking omelettes for Business Class using twelve pans between them. Also the beef casserole being prepared for Economy, placed onto plates cube of beef by cube of beef (very stringent portion control but all fresh, I was assured, and no preservatives or additives used).

As for the vino, the airline recently spent a fortune developing a unique pressurised tasting room for their wine buyers (of whom the great Oz Clarke is one) that mimics exactly the pressure inside an aircraft cabin at 35,000ft. It takes two hours to pressurize and one to depressurize and no other airline has anything like it (Lufthansa uses a decommissioned Boeing 747) and it’s here that they buyers taste over 1,000 different bottles each year.

Singapore Airlines serves £3m worth of Dom Pérignon every year, apparently, and £2m worth of Krug Grande Cuvée. And in Business and First they only serve Bordeaux of 2ème Cru status and above.

Back in the real world, I’m off to Madrid next week with EasyJet (only £60 return) and am already dreaming of those 18.75cl bottles of Louis Eschenauer Sauvignon/Colombard…

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