Wine in the sky is a mixed bag, writes Max Allen, but the highest-flying lists are well worth the long haul.
Would you - should you - choose an airline based on its in-flight wines? Probably not. Safety and comfort are higher on most passengers' list of priorities than the quality of the claret on a long-haul flight. But just as airlines have made a concerted effort to improve the food they serve, so have they realised that spending time and money on their in-flight wine selections can give them an edge. Several employ and promote celebrity selectors - Masters of Wine, wine journalists, well-known winemakers, wine-show judges - and some carriers go out of their way to champion lesser-known wines from their country of origin.
My mission: to compare and contrast the wine lists in business and first-class (where available) of 10 leading airlines operating out of Australia. (I didn't assess economy-cabin wines because these tend to be similar regardless of carrier.)
Drinking wine is different in a big metal tube at 36,000 feet: the dryness of the air in the pressurised cabin and the constant noise of the engines affect the way tastebuds and aroma receptors work. I couldn't convince the editor to let me assess all 10 wine lists in situ - en route to Paris, perhaps, or New York - so I cross-checked them at ground level.
The lists vary wildly in approach and content, and in the time, effort and investment lavished on them. What's consistent, however, is that Champagne and Port are de rigueur on long-haul flights, and most lists have more reds than whites - a reflection, perhaps, of the tastes of business and first-class passengers.
I've rated each airline's offering using the same out-of-three glasses system used to score wine lists in the annual GT Australian Restaurant Guide.
The national airline of Canada's wine offering in business class lacks the attention to detail and depth of several of the other lists I survey here. It's a single-page collection comprising one Champagne, two whites, three reds and a Port. A few of these wines are of high quality - it's great to see the excellent smaller-house Drappier Champagne on board, for example, rather than the usual big-label suspects - but a couple are surprisingly cheap 'n' cheerful (Maipo Valley sauvignon blanc from Chile) and no vintages are listed for any of them, which is unforgivable and easily corrected.
BA's business list is surprisingly short: one Champagne, two whites (one Old World, one New World) and two reds (ditto). The Champagne is a reliable big name (Taittinger); the other wines are made by solid, mid-sized companies (Brocard Chablis; Jaraman Shiraz from Taylors in the Clare Valley). The first-class list isn't much longer: one extra white and red, a dessert wine and a Port. But it's slightly more glamorous: Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle Champagne, and Grand Cru Chablis. The first-class list, however, is also strangely unbalanced: both non-Euro wines are from the Clare Valley, for example. There is, though, a gem at the end of the list in first: Warre's 1992 Colheita, a great 21-year-old single-vintage tawny Port.
Cathay's award-winning wine offering is one of the best I've viewed: the selections in both business and first-class are a good balance of well-known, established names such as Krug Grand Cuvée and Mountadam riesling, smaller-scale Australian wines such as the Rocky Gully Frankland River Shiraz Viognier, and new Kiwi classics such as Quartz Reef's Central Otago pinot noir. Cathay prides itself on its well-cellared red Bordeaux in first: passengers at the pointy end can choose from such excellent bottles as 2005 Cantenac Brown, 2007 Pontet-Canet and 2004 Lynch-Bages.
Like British Airways' selections, the business and first-class lists on Emirates feature some very good wines, but are strangely unbalanced. The business offering comprises one Champagne - the very ordinary Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial - two whites, both from Margaret River, and two reds: a mature claret and a young, cheap Barossa shiraz. Things get more interesting in first class where the list echoes business and adds 2003 Dom Pérignon Champagne; the rare dry white Bordeaux, Y d'Yquem; and a mature 2000 vintage Château Batailley. But, bizarrely, two of the five reds, the 2009 Onkaparinga Grenache and 2005 Astralis - as good as they are - are both from Clarendon Hills, as though buyers snaffled a job lot.
Etihad claims that its business and first-class lists offer wines from "boutique" estates, but I could find only two or three wines that could, at a stretch, fit that bill from a selection of 11. The wines on offer aren't bad by any means: I'd be more than happy to drink 2002 Bollinger Champagne or 2008 Réserve de la Comtesse claret in first class. Villa Maria Cellar Selection sauvignon blanc is a fine choice in business, and I'm glad to see the great Hungarian dessert wine, Tokaji, get a run in both cabins. But can Gabbiano Chianti, for example, owned by the multinational Treasury Wine Estates, really be described as "boutique"?
Travellers to South America in LAN's business cabins are offered a concise list (two whites, three reds), but it represents an interesting, unusual and appropriate selection of wines from Chile, Argentina and Portugal (oh, and France, of course, as it's obligatory to serve Champagne as the in-flight bubbly in business). Highlights include a white torrentés from the high-altitude region of Salta in Argentina, a Torres carménère from Curico in Chile, and, to finish, the 2005 Croft Late Bottled Vintage Port. This is one of the more refreshingly eclectic in-flight lists.
Compared to some of the other lists reviewed here, Qantas's offerings in first and business class appear on the short side: just one Champagne, three whites and three reds in first; one Champagne, two whites and two reds in business. But the wines on each flight are selected from an extensive revolving collection, which means what you drink on one leg will probably be different from what you find on the other. And the quality is high: the four available Champagnes, for example, include top cuvées such as Pol Roger's Sir Winston Churchill; the Australian selection of no fewer than 45 whites and 65 reds includes old and new stars such as Grosset, Cullen, Castagna and Yarra Yering.
Business and first-class passengers choose from a solid, traditional selection of wines representing familiar labels and classic regions. This is not surprising, given the airline's panel of celebrity consultants including Australia's first Master of Wine, Michael Hill Smith. Bollinger kicks off proceedings in business, followed by two whites, from Stonier on the Mornington Peninsula and Nautilus in Marlborough, then three reds including a good claret (Château Loudenne) and a 10-year-old tawny. The first-class list isn't much longer, but the names are more prestigious: 2003 Dom Pérignon, Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc, Petaluma chardonnay, 2007 Cos d'Estournel. Oh, and the tawny is a more refined 20 years old.
Surprisingly, almost all the wines in Thai's business and first-class cabins are French - and of the two non-French wines in first, one is an Australian red, Domaine Tournon Shiraz, made by French company M Chapoutier. The choices are oddly unbalanced, too: of the three whites in business, two are chardonnays from Burgundy: one Rully and one unnamed Bourgogne. And in first class, of the five reds, three are cabernet merlot blends (one from Tuscany, two from Bordeaux), one is the French-made Aussie shiraz and the last is a négociant Burgundy. Still, there's solace to be found in a glass of 2003 Dom Pérignon.
Virgin Australia's well-annotated and informative business-class list on international routes kicks off with a 2002 Lanson Champagne, but then the focus is on small to medium-sized Australian producers, with three whites, three reds and a couple of stickies on offer. The selection changes frequently: recent lists have included gems such as a chardonnay from biodynamic producer Lark Hill in the Canberra District, old-vine riesling from Forest Hill in Western Australia's Great Southern region, and Dandelion Vineyards' Lioness of McLaren Vale Shiraz. This is a terrific Australian showing that reflects passion and effort on the part of Virgin Australia's selectors, consultant Jim McMahon and winemakers Sue Hodder and David Morris.
Note: wine lists were current at the time of writing.