Cellars in the Sky
As competition heats up in business and first-class cabins worldwide, global airlines have found a new way to win customers. Richard Holmes pops the cork on the world of high-flying airline wines…
Sleek Business Class lounge? Check. Modern fuel-efficient aircraft? Check. Lie-flat seats and smiling air stewards? Check. World-class wine?
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 programmes count for something, as do the comfort and spaciousness of the premium cabins, but leading carriers are increasingly using a glass of superlative 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,’ says Christopher Cole, food and beverage and product change manager for British Airways, which has a diverse wine offering on its hundreds of daily flights worldwide.
With over 160 wines available 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.’
Impressing passengers with wine begins with getting the right bottles on board, 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, 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’s a very different mood and dynamic. The passenger is open to surprises and discoveries [as long as] the quality is high.’
To ensure a superior wine offering, most global airlines employ teams of professional tasters to curate their on-board wine lists. South African Airways convenes a panel of local and international experts to select the 48 wines offered each year; British Airways uses leading wine agencies Bibendum and Castelnau to compile its First Class and Club World wine lists; and Singapore Airlines employs wine celebrities including Oz Clarke to sit on its tasting panel.
Down Under, Australian carrier Qantas enjoys an exclusive agreement with the experts and mixologists from the acclaimed Rockpool Restaurant Group to select and blend their on-board wines. As airline panelists, their enviable job is to evaluate thousands of bottles 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 travellers 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’s 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.
Indeed, airlines are 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 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. ‘Orders can be substantial, upwards of 100 000 bottles. It can be huge business.’
Kobus Basson, owner and managing director of Stellenbosch estate Kleine Zalze, which has seen its wines listed with the likes of Air Canada and Delta Air Lines, agrees. ‘Generally speaking, it’s more about the reputation and marketing, but in some instances and with some airlines it can also be good business.’ In 2016 the Kleine Zalze Family Reserve chenin blanc 2015 will be enjoyed by the lucky few in Lufthansa’s First Class cabin.
So, 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 all more than happy to raise a glass to that.
High-flying wines in numbers
- Emirates spent more than US$54 million on wine for its premium cabins last year.
- Swiss International Air Lines pops the cork on 90 000 bottles of Champagne in its long-haul premium cabins each year.
- In 2014, Cathay Pacific served 800 000 bottles of wines in its premium cabins.
Text: Richard Holmes
Photographs: Supplied and iStock