The Secrets of Airline Sommeliers
What does it take to train cabin staff to be so conversant in wine? What’s the story behind these impressive wine lists? And how does wine taste different in the air? We spoke to some of the industry’s best to find out.
When the beverage cart rolls down the economy aisle on most flights, there’s only one question: Red or white? But on some airlines—particularly in the premium classes—there’s an awful lot of thought that goes into the wine in your glass. Wine lists assembled by world-class sommeliers. Bottles tasted at conditions that mimic cabin pressure. Even certified sommeliers on the airplane itself.
I knew that Singapore Airlines had excellent service, I mused from 40,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, sipping a glass of excellent Chardonnay from California’s Santa Maria Valley—chosen specially for my route, which departed from San Francisco—but it’s one thing to run a business class cabin with a smile, and another to be well-versed in varietals, wine regions, and grand crus. Wine knowledge is a world of its own, but my flight attendant chatted comfortably about each bottle on the list, suggesting I switch to a Bordeaux later in my meal.
What does it take to train cabin staff to be so conversant in wine? What’s the story behind these impressive wine lists? And how does wine taste different in the air? I spoke to some of the industry’s best to find out.
How does wine taste in the air?
It’s one thing to taste wine on solid ground; it’s another to taste it at cruising altitude, according to Singapore Airlines wine expert Jeannie Cho Lee—the first Master of Wine from Asia, an award-winning author, and a master sake sommelier (among her many other credentials).
“Lower humidity levels can have a significant impact on how we perceive the taste of wine,” she says—one of the biggest factors that alters how we experience what’s in our glass. It’s not that the wine itself changes; it’s that our perception of it does.
“At high altitude, when the air is much drier, our taste buds are less sensitive," says Joost Heymeijer, Senior Vice President of Catering at Emirates. "Certain taste profiles, such as sweetness, are dampened by altitude, by as much as a third. Other parts of your taste appear unaffected, particularly in the savory range. This can subtly change the overall taste profile of a wine.”
To replicate the experience of drinking wine in the air, Lee and other wine experts at Singapore Airlines are able to conduct some tastings in a simulated environment. “A pressurized tasting room at our main catering facility in Singapore replicates some of the conditions found at altitude,” she says. This helps the team make selections almost as if they were in-flight. But this level of realism isn’t always practical for such a large airline, she says; and their collective knowledge helps them make accurate decisions. “We have enough experience to know how these conditions affect our taste and appreciation for wine.”
Emirates has a team of wine specialists—including the airline president, Sir Tim Clark, whom Heymeijer describes as “a serious wine aficionado”—that together determine its in-air offerings. “We serve over 200 wines a year, and draw from a huge variety of estates to ensure that we offer elegantly constructed wine lists,” he says. And they’re keeping in mind how wines will present up in the air. “Members of the team fly often, and they have great skill at choosing wines that will work at altitude.”
Heymeijer also points out that, as aircraft have evolved, cabin conditions have become less extreme—so the differences in how we taste wine (and food, for that matter) are less pronounced. “On our modern fleet, the conditions are not comparable with older aircraft,” he says. “Humidity and pressure are greatly advanced. It’s similar to being at altitude in the Swiss Alps.”
How to curate a balanced wine list
Clientele flying across the world in first or business class are generally accustomed to luxury—and thus, particular standards of wine. There’s a reason nearly every international business class offers Champagne before takeoff.
At Singapore Airlines, the First and Suites classes emphasize Burgundies and Bordeaux, along with both Dom Perignon and Krug Grande Cuvee; showstopper wines, to be sure. Economy class wines, meanwhile, are chosen for value and drinkability. But Jeannie Cho Lee finds the Business Class selections to be the most interesting. “It’s exciting since we try to find high-quality, trendy wines and emerging icons around the world—such as a top Argentinian Malbec, a New Zealand Pinot Noir or a modern style of Spanish Tempranillo,” she says.
Air New Zealand, from a nation well-known for its wines, takes a different tack—serving only wines from that country. “We are the single largest server of wines in New Zealand, serving close to eight million glasses annually,” according to an Air New Zealand spokesperson. With wine as a major driver of tourism to the region, it’s logical enough. “We’re committed to showcasing New Zealand wines and helping to supercharge the success of the New Zealand wine industry.”
How to serve wine in flight.
When flight attendants appear with the beverage cart, no matter which cabin you’re in, food is generally close behind. So airline wine experts keep in mind that passengers are often drinking these wines alongside a meal—and in the case of premium classes, sometimes quite elaborate ones.
“We focus on the versatility of a wine as an important asset,“ Lee says of Singapore Airlines. “If we had the choice between two excellent Cabernet blends from California, for example, we would choose the one that had more freshness, lighter oak and tannin levels and balanced flavors rather than overt, intense flavors—which can overpower delicate dishes.” It’s the more versatile wine that gets “uplifted”: airline jargon meaning that it’s loaded onto a plane for service.
Heymeijer agrees, focusing on characteristics that allow wines to best complement meals. “When choosing a wine for an in-flight meal, we look for options with good acidity, as it tends to flatten at altitude and make for a more balanced wine in the air. We also like to have wines with quite strong characteristics as they show better in-flight.”
Not every wine will come across well in the air, and serving conditions aren’t always optimal. “Some red wines would greatly benefit from decanting, but this is not possible,” says Lee. “And the temperature of red wines are often not ideal—they can be too cold and need to be allowed to warm up.” Singapore Airlines has tried to address this through glassware that better showcases the wines, developed in a partnership with Lalique.
Poured by experts—introducing the "Air Sommelier"
At the end of the day, each airlines’ biggest asset is the cabin crew serving the wine. Singapore Airlines, in particular, has a rigorous program: certain staff members attain Level 2, then Level 3 certification from the internationally-recognized Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET)—along with an in-house training program to be designated an “Air Sommelier.” Today, the airline has more than 100 air sommeliers in the skies, educating fellow staff as well as chatting wine with passengers.
Similarly, at Emirates, “our pursers on-board are trained on the principles of food pairing to be able to recommend the best wines to accompany meals,” Heymeijer says, with some pursuing further wine education. “[As] they stay with Emirates, they are re-trained with a larger emphasis on wine and mixology skills, increasing as crew moves up in classes.”
It’s a significant investment in time and training, adding to flight attendants’ many other roles aboard a plane. Even with all the inherent limitations of flying, airlines go through tremendous efforts to give these premium classes a top-notch food and wine experience—making it even easier to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.