A sip of the finest wines in the sky

7 March, 2019 | Global airlines are offering impressive cellars of fine wine to woo premium travellers. Anyone for a glass of Cheval Blanc?

A sip of the finest wines in the sky

Illustration by Eloise Timmis

Premium cabins have become a key battleground for full-service airlines, and with good reason: passengers in Business and First Class punch above their weight when it comes to profit. On popular routes premium travellers can account for just 12 percent of passengers, but generate nearly half of all airline revenue. But as spacious seats, limousine transfers and onboard bars become standard, airlines are looking to less obvious touch points to bag your booking. And that increasingly includes offeringa superlative wine list that would impress even on terra firma.

‘We take wine very seriously as we have a global customer base that, rightly, expects food and drink of a quality level that you find in a top-class restaurant,’ says Joost Heymeijer, a senior vice president for in-flight catering at Emirates.

Emirates arguably leads the race to boast the best cellar in the sky. Since 2006 the carrier has spent $760 million on wine, offers individual red-wine carafes in First Class, and holds nearly five million bottles in its cellars.

But you’ll need to fork out for First Class to access the best of that cellar. Alongside the chance to sip vintage Dom Pérignon, the airline has launched the Emirates Vintage Collection. For the past decade they have been buying – often en primeur – and cellaring wines from some of France’s most iconic vineyards. On selected routes, passengers can sip on the likes of Château Cheval Blanc 2004, Château Haut Brion 2004 and Château Margaux 1998.

‘We went direct to the winemakers, handpicked these vintages and then cellared them for up to 15 years in Burgundy before we decided they were ready to be served,’ explains Heymeijer. ‘Many of the wines we are buying now will not go on board until 2030 and beyond!’

But to ensure a memorable in-flight experience, choosing the right style of wine is as important as the cachet of the brand. The reduced cabin pressure and dry air in an aircraft wreaks havoc with our sense of taste and smell. In the glass, fruit notes are typically inhibited, while harsh tannins are exaggerated.

Bringing experts on board

To get it right, airlines are employing some of the world’s most respected experts to set their wine selection apart. Air France consults with a trio of French wine experts, Virgin Atlantic employs Berry Bros. & Rudd (established 1698), while British Airways works with London-based Castelnau Wine Agencies.

Wine is ‘an essential element of our new onboard dining experience in Club World,’ says Sue Petrie, British Airways’ regional commercial manager Southern and East Africa. ‘Not only do we take great care in selecting the choice of wines we offer to ensure they present well at altitude, but also the way we serve them,’ she adds. As part of a £600 million investment in its Club World cabin, British Airways has revamped the onboard dining experience, with wine coolers, restaurant-style service, and a renewed focus on world-class wine.

The airline tweaks its list according to the destination region, and is embracing the brave new world of British wine: First Class passengers can now enjoy English sparkling wine from Wiston Estate in West Sussex.

The finer things

In Europe, look out for a unique collaboration on board KLM, which sees five wines labelled with iconic paintings from the Dutch Rijksmuseum. ‘It is a world-exclusive combination of fine art and fine wine, carefully composed by the Rijksmuseum staff and the KLM wine-tasting panel,’ explains Wouter Vermeulen, Air France-KLM general manager for Southern Africa. Perhaps more impressive is that the collection includes a South African Sauvignon Blanc, from the historic Boschendal estate.

If you’re skipping over to Europe or heading long-haul east or west, there’s never been a better time for turning that comfortable premium-class cabin into a high-flying wine tasting.

Read more features by Richard Holmes here.


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