Call it the ultimate wine challenge: choosing bottles that will travel from winery to storage to airport to airline and still fly right, 35,000 feet in the sky. At its annual Wines on the Wing competition held at the Millennium Broadway Hotel in Manhattan this spring, Global Traveler amassed 151 wines submitted by 31 airlines offering international, long-haul, business-class service. The wines were served in coded glasses to 34 prominent wine judges. The goal? To find the airline with the best “wines on the wing.”
And the winner was: United Airlines, whose combined tally for five entries — one each from Germany, the United States and the French regions of Bordeaux, Champagne and Burgundy — added up to the highest score. Cathay Pacific Airways was a close second, with selections from Champagne, Bordeaux, New Zealand and Australia. Third was Qantas Airways; it submitted Champagne and four Australian wines.
United Airlines also had the highest-scoring wine among the Top 10 White Wines — Selbach-Oster Riesling 2003 — followed by Scandinavian Airlines’ Chablis Premier Cru Montmains 2002, from Jean-Marc Brocard. Aer Lingus led the Top 10 Red Wines list with Château Faurie de Souchard 1998, St. Émilion, while the second-place winner in that category was also from Bordeaux: Les Fiefs de Lagrange 1998, Saint-Julien, submitted by Finnair.
Icelandair’s Piper-Heidsieck Brut Non-Vintage scored highest in the Champagnes/Sparkling Wines category. And therein lies a story. Five airlines submitted Piper-Heidsieck Brut Non-Vintage as their Champagne, and the five were blind-tasted together as one flight, in coded glasses. Without knowing all the glasses before them held the same Champagne (the flight was labeled simply “Non-Vintage Champagne”), the judges found four of them to be similar and excellent, and scored them within fractions of each other. They were so good, in fact, that all four scored among the Top 10 Champagnes.
Only one did not make the list. Why? When the wines were received by Global Traveler, within hours they were unpacked, coded and laid on their sides in the same place under the same conditions. There they remained until the day before the competition, when they were moved to the judging site. Could this one Piper-Heidsieck Brut Non-Vintage have experienced a storage or transportation problem before it reached Global Traveler?
“Airlines spend an inordinate amount of time getting the wine selection right,” said Peter Nixon, Qantas Airways beverage manager, “but they sometimes forget that wine is a fragile commodity.”
From the time they leave the winery to the time they are poured on the plane, Nixon said, wines may be exposed to extremes in temperatures; once on board, they are subjected to excessively dry conditions. “There is probably no worse way to handle wine.”
To minimize some of these problems, most airlines leave the wines at the winery until needed or, as in Icelandair’s case, with the importer or in the airline’s transit storage.
John Sheldon, one of our veteran wine judges, who has spent 30 years importing, distributing and selling wine, said that by changing the way the bottles are closed — for example, using the ever-more-popular Stelvin closure, a screw cap — much of the oxidation and thus spoilage that can occur in all wines can be eliminated. Nixon of Qantas agreed, saying, “Cork has elastic properties and is significantly affected by the airline environment. An airline is no place for cork.”
With its new and innovative wine program, Qantas hopes to eliminate some of the challenges of serving wine in the air. It now chooses 250 different wines each year and changes the onboard selection every month. As a result, the wine is at each catering center for a relatively short period, which limits its potential exposure to extremes in temperature.
With so many possible stumbling blocks looming, how does an airline choose its wines?
“We want wines that are well-ba lanced, clean, exhibit structure and rich fruit and are true to their appellation,” said Bill Dove, director of worldwide catering for United Airlines. “And they need to appeal to a broad constituency, since our customer base spans the world.”
United works with master sommelier/master of wine Doug Frost, who tastes the collected wines and sends the best — usually one for every 35 he samples — for review by a panel of professional tasters at United. Another factor that affects a wine’s acceptance: United changes the wine it serves in business class every two months, which means that a minimum of 18,000 bottles of a wine must be available to cover that period worldwide.
United does not pair its wine and food. “Our food choices are scheduled independently of the wine selections, so an added challenge is finding wines that can complement a wide variety of foods,” said Dove.
Clara Yip, assistant manager of beverage and catering supplies at Cathay Pacific, said, “in flight, a wine’s aromas tend to be reduced, and the tannins and bitter flavor components become more pronounced. So good flying wines should have big fruit flavor, mild tannins and a balanced acidity.”
Robert Bullock, Aer Lingus catering manager, agreed. “During long flights, overly tannic wines taste harsh and alcohol levels are exaggerated,” he said, adding, “Excessively oaked wines are also exaggerated in the air.”
At Cathay Pacific, the wines are chosen by a panel of three wine consultants, Yip and other wine experts at the airline. The airline changes its wines one at a time in a staggered order, with each one being served for about three to four months; the minimum number of cases required for a business-class wine varies from 7,200 to 72,000 bottles.
After Icelandair collects wines from around the world and narrows the field to about 100, it has them tasted by a panel of experts, as well as by a group of tasters whom Ragna Björk Porvaldsdóttir, Icelandair purchasing manager for customer service, describes as “ordinary people.” The goal is to get the general public’s reaction to the wine. Based on the results of those tastings, the list is further narrowed.
“Our kinsmen seem to like the exotic,” Porvaldsdóttir said. “So we pursue traditional wines from Europe as well as wines from the New World, such as New Zealand and Australia. Any grape could do, as long as it meets our criteria of being elegant and daring.”
At Aer Lingus, Bullock said, the tasting panel sets excellence as its highest goal. The carrier generally considers 3,600 bottles of wine a minimum supply. “We choose wines for their individual merits rather than preconceived notions about countries, regions, etc. We look for outstanding wines that fit our budget based primarily on taste.”
Airlines serve a tremendous amount of wine each year. In business class alone, United opens 600,000 bottles of still wine and 84,000 bottles of Champagne. Qantas opens between one million and two million bottles in first and business class. Overall, Cathay Pacific uses about one million bottles. Even the smaller airlines consume a good deal: Each year, Aer Lingus opens 78,000 bottles, and Icelandair opens 87,000 bottles.
The importance of an airline’s choice of wine is enormous. So are the challenges — minimum supplies, budgets, storage conditions, temperature controls, ground transportation, a wine’s ability to keep its character on long flights at low humidity, its compatibility with a wide variety of foods and more.
And yet, despite this maze of conceivable mishaps, 31 airlines showed the confidence and dedication to their programs to take part in Global Traveler’s Wines on the Wing competition. They must be doing something right.
To take part in the competition, airlines submitted two white wines, two red wines and one Champagne or other sparkling wine on their current international business-class wine lists, as well as the lists themselves. The wines were then divided into flights, or categories, according to their type — red burgundy, for example, or New Zealand sauvignon blanc — and served in numbered glasses. Judges knew only the type of wine and, when appropriate, the vintage. If judges felt a wine was flawed, a reserve bottle was served. The tasting was monitored by Global Traveler staff and aides.
Each wine was judged on a 20-point scale. The judges’ individual scores for a wine were added and averaged, and the five averaged scores of an airline’s submissions were totaled. The airlines with the highest totals won the Wines on the Wing awards.
CESAR BAEZA is winemaster and coowner of Brotherhood Winery in New York state. A native of Chile, Baeza studied winemaking there as well as in France, Spain and California.
RORY CALLAHAN is president of Wine & Food Associates, a market development firm whose wine clients include Spain, New Zealand and South Africa. He is a graduate of the University of California–Davis School of Viticulture and Enology, and co-founder of the International Wine Center.
JENNIFER CONNELLY is sales manager for Frontier Wine Imports, a national importer of Spanish wines; she is also a frequent speaker on Spanish wines. Previously, she lived and studied in Spain, where she worked at Bodegas Barbadillo.
TARCISIO COSTA is co-owner and wine director at Alfama, a Portuguese restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village, where he has created an award-winning wine list of Portugal’s most outstanding wines.
ROB COSTANTINO is managing editor of Santé, The Magazine for Restaurant Professionals and also writes the magazine’s bimonthly wine feature. He is a frequent wine judge and panel moderator.
JOSEPH DELISSIO is wine director of New York’s River Café. Author of The River Café’s Wine Primer, he is also a consultant and frequent lecturer.
MALACHY DUFFY is a writer specializing in wine and food whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Life, Town & Country, Luxury Spa Finder and other publications.
JOHN FANNING is general manager and wine director at Beppe Trattoria in Manhattan. He was previously general manager of Felidia, Coco Pazzo, Le Madri and Palio in New York and Bramante in Rome.
FRED FERRETTI is wine and food editor for TravelClassics.com. Previously a New York Times reporter, Gourmet magazine columnist and NBC writer and correspondent, he is a contributor to many national publications.
MICHAEL FEUERSTEIN is owner of the wine importing and distributing company Selection Pas Mal, whose portfolio includes fine, rare wines of Burgundy, the Loire Valley, the Rhône Valley and the Languedoc, in France.
BARBARA FRANK is a consulting winemaker and regional marketing representative for Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars and Chateau Frank. A graduate winemaker, she has worked at S. Anderson, Schramsberg, Navarro and Domaine Mumm.
DAVID FRIESER is president of Beekman Liquors Inc., a 47-year-old wine shop in Manhattan. Frieser has been involved in wine professionally for more than 20 years. He also conducts wine tastings for clients.
CURTIS GREEN is president and founder of TenFolks Enterprises, a wine education and marketing company created to broaden interest in wine among African-Americans through tastings, seminars and other events.
WILL HELBURN is a wine retailer affiliated with Neil Rosenthal, New York, for 25 years, principally as a manager. Previously, he worked with the importing companies Julius Wile and Sidney Frank.
RUSSELL HONE is partner and sales director at SARL Le Serbet, a wine exporting firm in Burgundy, France. Before moving to Burgundy in 1985, Hone worked in the wine trade in Britain for 17 years.
FRANK JOHNSON is chairman of Frank Johnson Selections, a New York–based wine brokerage firm that focuses on European wines. He also has written two wine books and published numerous wine articles.
HARRIET LEMBECK has been president of the Manhattan-based Wine and Spirits Program for the past 25 years, where she teaches both wine trade personnel and consumers. She is also wine director at the New School University Culinary Arts Program.
MARK MAZUR is director of VinConsult, where he is an advisor to wine producers and importers, and a personal wine consultant. Previously, he was tasting director for Wine Enthusiast magazine.
DAN PERLMAN is wine buyer and general manager for Heights Chateau, a fine-wine shop in Brooklyn. A trained sommelier and chef, he is also a wine and food columnist for Outlet Radio Network.
CHARLES SCICOLONE is wine director at I Trulli Restaurant and Enoteca wine bar, and wine consultant for Vino, an Italian wine and spirits shop, all in Manhattan. He is also a lecturer and consultant on Italian wines and spirits.
PATRICK SÉRÉ is executive vice president of Dreyfus Ashby, a wine importing firm in New York, with which he has been associated for 25 years and where he is chief liaison with suppliers.
JOHN SHELDON is a wine representative of Artisan and Pas Mal, two fine-wine importers and distributors; founder and d irector of the 32-year-old New York Wine Tasting School; and consultant to restaurants and private clubs.
FELICIA SHERBERT is president of What’s My Wine?, a consulting and communications firm specializing in wine and spirits; member of the Distinguished Advisory Board at Johnson & Wales University; and member of the International Food and Beverage Forum.
PETER SICHEL is a fourth-generation wine grower and négociant; a leading authority on German and Bordeaux wines; coowner of Château Fourcas-Hosten in Bordeaux; a frequent lecturer; and author of two wine books.
DARRIN SIEGFRIED is owner of the wine shop Red, White & Bubbly, and wine director of Cucina restaurant, both in Brooklyn. Previously, he was sommelier at Claude Troisgros’s CT restaurant and manager of several New York restaurants.
JAMES STAHL is wine buyer/dining room manager for The Old Inn on the Green, New Marlborough, Mass.; formerly, he was wine consultant to Vintage Imports and Berkshire Wine Imports, and beverage manager of John Andrews Restaurant Group.
W.R. TISH is the creator of a series of “Wine + Food Comedy” dinners in New York City and the developer of private and corporate wine events through his Web site, wineforall.com.
BECKY WASSERMAN-HONE is founder and managing director of SARL Le Serbet, Selection becky Wasserman, a wine exporting firm in Burgundy. She is president of SA Camille Giroud.
ERIC WHITE is cellar master of Chelsea Wine Storage, a professional storage facility for premier restaurants and collectors that is located beneath Chelsea Wine Vault, a fine-wine shop in Manhattan. He is also a certified sommelier.
ERIC WOODS is co-owner of Harlem Vintage, the first boutique wine shop in New York’s Harlem, specializing in artisanal wines from around the world.
MICHAEL YURCH is president of Sherry-Lehmann in Manhattan. Before joining that wine firm in 1985, he was managing director of The Wine Cart in New York for four years. Previously, he worked for the Wine Imports of America Corp.
Air New Zealand
Air Tahiti Nui*
All Nippon Airways
Cathay Pacific Airways
China Eastern Airlines*
China Southern Airlines*
Delta Air Lines
Iberia Air Lines
Malév Hungarian Airlines
SN Brussels Airlines*
South African Airways
Swiss International Air Lines*
TAM Brazilian Airlines*
Virgin Atlantic Airways
*AIRLINE DID NOT RESPOND OR CHOSE NOT TO PARTICIPATE.
TOP 10 OVERALL
Cathay Pacific Airways
TOP 10 RED WINES
CHÂTEAU FAURIE DE SOUCHARD 1998, St. Emilion, Bordeaux, France (Aer Lingus)
LES FIEFS DE LAGRANGE 1998, Saint-Julien, Bordeaux, France (Finnair)
VOYAGER ESTATE CABERNET SAUVIGNON/MERLOT 2000, Margaret River, Australia (Qantas Airways)
MO E MO PRIMITIVO DI MANDURIA 2002, Cantina Borgo Canale, Puglia, Italy (Alitalia Airlines)
HEATHCOTE ESTATE SHIRAZ 2002, Victoria, Australia (Qantas Airways)
(TIE) ALL SAINTS ESTATE SHIRAZ 2000, Victoria, Australia (Cathay Pacific Airways) and RODNEY STRONG SYMMETRY MERITAGE 1999, Alexander Valley, Calif.(Delta Air Lines)
E. GUIGAL CÔTES DU RHÔNE 2001, France (Aeromexico)
BARON DE LEY RIOJA 2001, Finca Monasterio, Spain (Iberia Airlines)
SALOMON FINNISS RIVER SHIRAZ 2001, McLaren Vale, Australia (Austrian Airlines)
BORGO SCOPETO CHIANTI CLASSICO RISERVA 2001, Tuscany, Italy (Alitalia Airlines)
TOP 10 WHITE WINES
SELBACH-OSTER RIESLING 2003, Qualitätswein, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany (United Airlines)
CHABLIS PREMIER CRU MONTMAINS 2002 Jean-Marc Brocard, France (Scandinavian Airlines)
ALTENBURG GEWÜRZTRAMINER 2002, Alsace, France (Thai Airways)
PIERRE SPAAR GEWÜRZTRAMINER GRAND CRU 2001, Alsace, France (Korean Air)
WEINGUT ZAHEL CHARDONNAY 2002, Austria (Austrian Airlines)
LABOURÉ-ROI POUILLY-FUISSÉ 2002, France (United Airlines)
FRAMINGHAM MARLBOROUGH SAUVIGNON BLANC 2003, New Zealand (Cathay Pacific Airways)
ALLIAGE DE SICHEL GRAVES 2003, Bordeaux, France (Gulf Air)
WEINGUT STADT KREMO RIESLING 2002, Trochen, Austria (Austrian Airlines)
LE DOMAINE SAGET POUILLYFUMÉ 2002, Loire Valley, France (Qatar Airways)
TOP 10 CHAMPAGNES/SPARKLING WINES
PIPER-HEIDSIECK BRUT NON-VINTAGE (Icelandair)
PHILIPPONNAT BRUT NONVINTAGE, LE REFLET (All Nippon Airways)
PIPER-HEIDSIECK BRUT NONVINTAGE (Asiana Airlines)
CHARLES HEIDSIECK BRUT RÉSERVE NON-VINTAGE, “MIS EN CAVES EN 2000” (Qantas Airways)
PIPER HEIDSIECK BRUT NON-VINTAGE (Korean Air)
VEUVE CLICQUOT PONSARDIN LA GRANDE DAME 1995 (Thai Airways)
(TIE) HENRIOT BRUT 1995 (Scandinavian Airlines) and MOËT & CHANDON BRUT NON-VINTAGE (Aeromexico)
PIPER-HEIDSIECK BRUT NON-VINTAGE (Japan Airlines)
CHARLES LAFITTE GRANDE CUVÉE NON-VINTAGE (Continental Airlines)
CHARLES HEIDSIECK BRUT RÉSERVE NON-VINTAGE, “MIS EN CAVES EN 2000” (British Airways)
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