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  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
23 Feb 2019

27 February 2019 I am told by Berry Bros and Rudd, who supply wine to Virgin Atlantic, that there is an improvement plan to buy smaller lots of wine for Upper Class, thereby making the possibilities for selection less limited than they are currently. 

23 February 2019 A version of this article about airline wine is published by the Financial Times. 

In 1995 I was invited to join the team responsible for choosing the wine on British Airways. I felt very grown up. Other members of the team were the world's best-selling wine author Hugh Johnson, head of Christie's wine department Michael Broadbent, and another Master of Wine Colin Anderson, who was once responsible for buying so much wine for Allied Lyons that his nose was insured with Lloyd's. 

We would all trek out to Hatton Cross and taste blind hundreds of wines submitted in the hope of being airborne, eventually coming up with a shortlist of the best, giving the BA buying team something to get their teeth into. A team of two particularly wine-minded ex-stewards, Peter Nixson and Andy Sparrow, did all the hard work of organising the tenders, balancing the selection, getting the wine stocks to the right warehouses, and monitoring the stock.

This was BA's golden age. Cabin crew were encouraged to attend special wine courses. Budgets were generous. First Class wines would typically include a top classed growth claret and a premier cru white burgundy. Concorde, of which we were all so proud, was the jewel in the crown. Our tastings would be punctuated by the noise of Concorde taking off.

And we were especially proud of the Concorde Cellar with its wines (almost) worth buying a ticket on Concorde for. And the beauty was that 'only' about 100 cases were needed, instead of the thousands of cases usually required – a big brake on possibilities from regions such as Burgundy that are dominated by small-scale producers. (There is a reason why the bigger merchants of Beaune and co-ops of Chablis feature so heavily on airline wine lists.) Andy and Pete turned up at one prestigious Burgundian property to find a gate that had remained firmly closed to them was opened miraculously quickly when they mentioned the C-word.

But then came September 2001 and the airline industry would never be the same again. The immediate change for us was that BA pruned its wine consultant team down to me alone and Andy moved to food. I hope Peter and I did as good a job at selecting the best wines blind, but it was much less fun, only partly because budgets started to shrink. Concorde became a luxury BA could ill afford and was grounded in 2003.

In 2009 Willie Walsh, then head of BA, decided to abandon the policy of choosing wines on the basis of what they tasted like and instead, to cut costs, appointed a single exclusive supplier for each of the three classes. In 2010 I resigned.

But I have remained fascinated by airline wine. I know that some medics advise against consuming anything alcoholic at 33,000 feet but I can spend a good half hour reading an in-flight wine list on a long-haul flight, and far longer testing its contents. When I was working for BA I was relatively rarely recognised, but nowadays, whichever airline I'm on, I find the odd wine-interested cabin crew member may volunteer to ferry me a taste of what's being served up front.

In this era of budget airlines and fuel surcharges, it's becoming rarer to have a panel of consultants who choose airline wines on the basis of blind tastings. But twice a year Singapore Airlines convenes wine writers Oz Clarke and Jeannie Cho Lee MW plus Australian Master of Wine Michael Hill Smith to spend a week choosing wines from hundreds of possibilities for a selection that regularly does well in the airline wine competitions run on either side of the Atlantic by Business Traveller and Global Traveler magazines. (Although admittedly they tend to be based on a handful of wines chosen specifically for the competitions.)

A perhaps surprising number of airlines, including Cathay Pacific of Hong Kong, are supplied by a company based in the Middle East, a region not known for its wine consumption. MMI is based in Dubai and supplies the Middle Eastern airlines that today – again perhaps surprisingly – have the finest wine selections in the air. Emirates offers first growth Bordeaux in first class, and sometimes second growths in business class. Etihad and Qatar Airways are not far behind in what they offer the oenophile.

These Middle Eastern airlines may admittedly be cushioned by being state-owned, but the national airlines of wine-producing countries such as Australia and New Zealand are also of interest to those of us who care about what we drink – although their country's finest wines, prominently vaunted, never seem to be on the flight I'm travelling on.

Many of the American airlines are supplied by Napa-based Intervine and, although Americans like to complain about their domestic airlines, the selection offered on board American Airlines specifically is reported to have improved recently. Lufthansa has a particularly long term buying policy and Air France's selections have been patchy. I remember in my days ay BA being surprised that they were serving in First Class what we were serving in Business.

But unfortunately, the current wine selections on the two major airlines based in the UK, Virgin and British Airways, belie our nation's standing as a major global force in wine (see, for example, London, capital for wine). Virgin appeals much more effectively to the cocktail sipper than to the wine drinker, while the current state of wine buying at British Airways is described by one close trade observer as 'at rock bottom – there's only one way for them to go'.

BA's wine buying is currently in the hands of two young Frenchmen working for the parent company IAG who have no wine-buying experience. The dire state of their budget can be judged from a recent discussion on Flyertalk.com. The Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc then on offer in BA First Class was spotted in Morrisons at £5 a bottle, two for £9. Even more recently an Argentine Malbec that retails for $10 was served in First Class. All submissions in a recent First Class tender for wines over €6 a bottle from the cellar door were rejected. (The budget for forward buying of claret used to be €25.)

The glass of champagne that welcomes anyone who has paid thousands for their seat at the front of a plane is seen as the most important wine served on any plane. Even BA realise this, and have not (yet) pared Laurent Perrier's Grand Siècle from First Class – although one can only imagine the negotiations that keep it there. And they cunningly also offer a much cheaper champagne and, quite rightly, an English sparkling wine too, which presumably helps to reduce costs. Krug and Dom Pérignon are de rigueur for the Asian airlines, and Emirates have been known to offer the super-special, extra-aged Dom Pérignon P2. If you were really greedy you might even be able to drink the cost of your ticket.

WISE WORDS ON AIRLINE WINE

My fellow wine writer Charles Metcalfe has been chairing Business Traveller's Business and First Class airline wine competition for more than 10 years. On Monday he anointed Qantas this year's overall winner. (Qantas, which won several medals  in the competition's main categories, was judged best for First Class while BA, which won no medals, managed to score enough points to be judged best for Business Class on the basis of last year's wines entered into the competition. Emirates and Etihad did not submit samples.) Here are some of his observations:

  • In the air you don't want a tough red; it has to be good to drink now.
  • But airlines have always submitted lots of red bordeaux. Recently they've become a bit easier to cope with because recent vintages have given riper, rounder wines.
  • Red bordeaux and white burgundy still rule the roost to a great extent but generally airlines are getting a bit more adventurous.
  • New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are safe bets because they're so easy to appreciate.
  • Producer nations now have more confidence in their own wines, which is great. It's fun to have good wines from Italy, Spain or Portugal.
  • Airlines still haven't cottoned on that we'd rather have something that we'd enjoy drinking reclining in our First Class seat than a smart name. We judge blind, so we can't be impressed by labels!
  • Squeezed budgets aren't necessarily a problem because we know you can find very good inexpensive wines at lower prices. Many airline buyers are still selecting 'famous' names, even though these won't always give most pleasure.