Ever wondered how the wine served on your flight got on the plane? NED GOODWIN MW gives an insider’s view of the selection process
SELECTING WINES FOR air travel is intriguing. This is because a wine’s fruit and palate warmth seem to diminish at altitude, presenting all sorts of challenges to the drinker and to those responsible for choosing the wines alike. As a result, deliciousness is not what it is under normal drinking conditions. With altitude, a wine’s sharp edges, or what I often refer to as its bones, stick out in the air. These bones are constituted by a wine’s acidity and tannins, be they from grape or oak.
In the sky, highly pressurised, dry cabin air dulls our olfactory senses, decimating our ability to assess aromas and flavours. It also makes it difficult to determine balance in a wine, or that idyllic point when there’s enough fruit, or flesh, to support a wine’s bones. Concerns also include safety (and the resultant poor stemware) and spatial issues, meaning that many bottles are not in the best nick, nor at the ideal temperature, when they’re served.
This dynamic suggests that wines with moderate acidity and round soft tannins embedded into plenty of fruit are the most appropriate for air travel. After all, most of us want something that sits easy in the mouth, enticing us to reach for a second and third glass during a flight, while evincing an authority synonymous with the class that we’re flying. With this in mind, let’s just accept that the abhorrent pre-mix that has marred the once-noble Bloody Mary means that a stiff gin and tonic is all that will save us from economy class.
Further worries include education-cumbasic knowledge among flight attendants. How many times have you been encouraged to try a wine in-flight because of what it tastes like, or because of an appropriate food pairing? Pronunciations of producer and varietal names are often hackneyed and the best most servers can offer is a perfunctory announcement of a wine’s colour. This suggests that easily pronounced brand names may also be sound advice for those in charge of an airline’s wine programme.
Despite these challenges, I’m fortunate enough to select wines for business and first classes on All Nippon Airways, or ANA, as this forward-thinking airline is commonly known. Together with a panel of Japanese sommeliers and flight attendants, all modelling that ubiquitous badge depicting a bunch of grapes dangling from their lapels, we taste a slew of wines that have been tendered directly from producers unrepresented in the Japanese market, as well as from local importers. Many wines unknown in Japan are discovered while I’m on the road, be it at a wine bar in Sydney, Paris or Barcelona.
All wines are tasted blind across two full days. They’re organised into categories that are often more representative of cultural idiosyncrasies and regional bias than of common sense. For example, rather than tasting whites from the New World or more succinctly, New World Chardonnays, we taste an onslaught of wines made from Chardonnay, albeit all from California. During the Reagan/Nakasone era, the Japanese were apparently forced to obviate a bulging trade surplus by buying American cars and Californian wine. With this came a Californian wine boomu.
Thus, there’s also a Californian Cabernet class rather than the greater potential reach of a class called, say, New World Reds, before the inevitable class of Bordeaux in which many wines are astringent and lacking sufficient fruit. Ditto the Burgundy class, for which most airlines’ budgets are insufficient, at least when it comes to snaring better examples. The true highlight is the Champagne class, in which classic Brut styles with long lees ageing tend to shine. The best offer compelling aromas of brûlée and truffle, with creamy palates capable of buffering champagne’s inherently high acidity. Styles rendered in oak, or with low dosage, perform less well. Then comes the wastebasket of classes: Others.
Presumably, this class was created at a whim by the organisers, flummoxed by the multitude of wines from the likes of Portugal, Spain and Italy, as well as French regions outside of the usual suspects. Ironically, a great deal of effort goes into selecting bottles for this class and it often delivers the most interesting bunch of wines, many suitable for air travel (at least if we are to abide by the parameters that make a wine more palatable at altitude). Southern Rhône reds, for example, warm and inviting with enough textural complexity and intrigue to justify being in business or first class, spring to mind. Sadly, despite the region’s fashionability in many markets, the Japanese are yet to catch on. Then again, the global craze for rosé has not yet caught on in the land of the rising sun either, despite external perceptions suggesting that drier examples go well with the irreverent dining found in Japan’s many izakaya, or taverns.
This raises an interesting point. That which is supposed to “work”, or is considered appropriate – physiologically or otherwise – is reflective of a complex patina of cultural whims and mores. As a national brand, an airline is as much a vector for these cultural traits as are the wines it carries. For example, witness JAL’s tired and fusty wine selection; BA’s corporatised options, completely lacking flair or imagination; Emirates’ arriviste ambitions, as manifest in its wine choices as in its in-flight boasting of the many languages spoken by the crew; Qantas’ insouciant Aussie approach to service, juxtaposed by its superb all-Australian wine selection; and the haplessness of all the American carriers.
This is further demonstrated by the phalanx of Chablis tasted for ANA. The selection is top-notch, the winnowing down of wines tireless and vigilant. Yet the reason for so many candidates is that Chablis is easy to pronounce by many regular customers, I am told, particularly those who are older and grew up with wines from the region. This leads me to the great paradox. Given all that one seeks in a wine for service at altitude, the choice of something as shrill and mild-mannered as Chablis is confounding. After all, the flavours are subtle, acidity is often high and there is a jangly skein of brittle minerality to the better wines. This often makes them delicious, but arguably a little covert of personality for air travel.
Then again, so what? The warmth of familiarity found in a glass of Chablis, Merlot, Bordeaux or any of the other varietals or regional brands that have seared themselves into the consciousness of the average passenger melts into the sanctuary of the reclinable chair as the umpteenth glass of wine becomes one with the gloaming of the moment, to be largely forgotten before the next flight.
+Prestige Hong Kong