Cellars in the sky

Cellars in the sky

Sleek business class lounge? Check. Modern fuel-efficient aircraft? Check. Lie-flat seats and smiling air stewards? Check. 

With rising costs and ever-increasing competition, it’s become harder than ever for global airlines to tempt high-yield Business and First Class passengers on board. Loyalty programs count for something, as do the comfort and spaciousness of the premium cabins, but leading carriers are increasingly using a glass of world-class wine as a point of difference.

“A lot of research we’ve conducted recently shows that on long-haul flights the food and wine served on board is – after safety, punctuality and price – the biggest driver of customer satisfaction,” explains Christopher Cole, Food & Beverage and Product Change Manager for British Airways, which offers a diverse wine offering on its hundreds of daily flights worldwide.

With over 160 wines offered on board each year, Dubai-based Emirates is also pouring major investment into high-flying wines. 

“We take wine very seriously as we have a global customer base who, rightly, expect food and drink of a quality level that you find in a top-class restaurant,” says Joost Heymeijer, Emirates’ Senior Vice President Catering. “Our cultivated relationships with some of the world’s best chateaux give us access to some very exclusive and limited parcels of wine.”

That includes exclusive vintages of Dom Perignon, the rare Hennessy Paradis cognac, and ‘first growth’ wines from Bordeaux for First Class passengers to enjoy at the dedicated in-flight bar.

Impressing passengers with wine begins with getting the right bottles on board to begin with, and airlines usually tailor their wine list according to the ‘typical’ passenger they expect in each cabin. 

“The First Class passenger usually has [his] own wine cellar, he knows the big and important names and is drinking more classic and famous wines with a high brand value,” explains Benedict Fanconi, Manager: In-flight Development, Intercontinental for Swiss International Air Lines. “In Business Class there is a very different mood and dynamic. The passenger is open for surprises and discoveries. They are more open to the unknown… if the quality is high.”

To ensure a quality wine offering, most global airlines employ teams of professional tasters to curate their on-board wine list. 

South African Airways convenes a panel of local and international wine experts to select the 48 wines offered each year. British Airways uses leading wine agencies Bibendum and Castelnau to compile its First and Club World wine lists, while Singapore Airline’s employs wine celebrities including Oz Clarke to sit on their tasting panel. Down Under, Australian carrier Qantas enjoys an exclusive agreement with thewine experts and mixologists from the acclaimed Rockpool Restaurant Group to select and blend their on-board wines. 

As an airline panelist, their enviable job is to evaluate thousands of bottles each year and select those that tick the right boxes in terms of price and performance at 35 000 feet.

“On board [an] aircraft aromas tend to be reduced, and the tannin and more bitter flavour components are often more pronounced. Hence, good flying wines are fruit-driven, with mild tannins and a balanced acidity,” explains Clara Yip, Catering Manager at Cathay Pacific, which offers both Old and New World wines, and regularly includes local wines on flights to wine-producing destinations. Premium travelers flying between Johannesburg and Hong Kong can currently enjoy the Mont du Toit Hawequas 2012.

“We always look for wines with good acidity that tends to flatten when at altitude, which makes for a more balanced wine while flying,” adds Heymeijer, who says South African estates including Ken Forrester, Rustenberg and Raats have all made it on board over the past year.

In-flight wine service has become a further point of difference. Emirates now offers a canapé menu paired specifically with their selection of Dom Perignon vintages, while Qantas boasts specially-trained cabin crew – dubbed ‘Sommeliers in the Sky’ – to up the ante in on-board dining.

Ensuring passengers are impressed by the wine offering, and hopefully come back for more, is good business for the airlines, but on board wine listings are lucrative for the wine business too. 

“It is a wonderful marketing opportunity to get the wine poured and appreciated by the right market segment,” says Rijk Melck, Managing Director of family-owned Stellenbosch estate Muratie, whose Pinot Noir is poured in the rarefied air of Etihad Airways’ First Class.

Reputational value aside, airlines are also major customers for those wines that crack the nod. 

In the last financial year Emirates spent over US$54-million on wine for its premium cabins, and remains the world’s largest single buyer of Dom Perignon champagne. Qantas is the third-largest customer of Australian wine, and British Airways snaps up around one million bottles of wine per year for its Club World cabins alone.  

“Obtaining a listing in a Business Class environment is a remarkable marketing opportunity for us,” says Ross Sleet, Sales Director of Cape Legends, the luxury wine division at drinks giant Distell. “However, orders can also be substantial, upwards of 100 000 bottles. It can be huge business.”

“Generally speaking it is more about the reputation and marketing, but in some instances and with some airlines it can also be good business,” agrees Kobus Basson, Managing Director of Stellenbosch estate Kleine Zalze, which has seen its wines listed with the likes of Air Canada and Delta Air Lines. In 2016 the Kleine Zalze Family Reserve Chenin Blanc 2015 will be enjoyed by the lucky few in Lufthansa’s First Class cabin.

For while those stuck in the depths of Economy Class may count themselves lucky to have an anonymous glass of red or white with their chicken-or-beef, up at the sharp end the world of fine wine has come to the skies. And it seems airlines, travellers and winemakers are more than happy to raise a glass to that.

Who is OnAnotherPlane...

RIchard Holmes headshot web smallRichard Holmes is a freelance travel, food and lifestyle writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. His work on African and international destinations has appeared in a wide range of consumer publications both in South Africa and abroad.