People who love their wine have been ill-served in the past by airlines. I’ve been on the selection panel with SAA and I know that the choices are constrained by so many things – price first and foremost, but also availability, bottle size, suitable styles to be quaffed in the air and easy-to-read labels are just a few others – but very rarely are wines chosen because they’re the best wines around. For most of us, in-flight wine is merely alcohol – a way to numb the pain of cramped limbs and dull the taste of awful food.
Emirates Airline thinks they can do better than that. In fact, they think they can do better than anyone, and their aim is to offer the finest food and wine experience in the skies. I was their guest on a recent visit to France during which they explained their philosophy and showed us why these claims are valid. They do things a bit differently from other airlines.
Here are 5 reasons why I think they are the best airline for wine-lovers:
1. Cabin air pressure
Cabin pressure traditionally affects tastebuds and how we perceive certain components of wine - namely acidity, tannins and alcohol. All of these are exaggerated by high altitude which is why most airlines go in the opposite direction, choosing wines which pander to these needs as opposed to the best choices. Emirates have gone directly to the source of the problem and have found ways to reduce cabin pressure, meaning that drinking wine on one of their planes is akin to drinking it in the Cederberg mountains or at a ski resort in the Alps. So wines can be selected on the basis of merit, not because they meet unpalatable extremes.
2. Properly-aged wines
Emirates’ thinking is that if you can afford to fly in Business or First Class, you’re probably a pretty discerning customer, used to the best. The only way to offer the best wines in the quantities required for an airline is to buy them at source and age them until they’re ready, so at present, Emirates have around 2 million bottles in storage, waiting for the right time. It means that you can drink First Growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundy, perfectly-aged and ready to drink as opposed to thinner, more tannic young wines or wines of lesser quality.
We can all copy Miles from ‘Sideways’ and drink great wines out of a paper cup, but there is no doubt that wines are enhanced by being served in good glasses. Of course, airlines do have safety considerations to take into account, but don’t expect to find any plastic glasses on board an Emirates flight. They’re also one of the very few airlines which still use single-serve bottles in economy class as they believe customers prefer it. In addition, there are plans afoot for decanters to be used for every wine in First Class which will improve the drinking experience hugely.
4. Quality control
There’s no point serving the best wines unless you ensure that they are served in perfect condition. Any open bottles at the end of a flight are thrown away (pouring 40 year old Sandemans port down the drain!) because there are too many variables involved in keeping them in good condition before the next flight. Emirates are also pioneering new ways of serving wine – wine in tube or WIT's. These are single-servings of wines which are traditionally slow-movers such as dessert wines. Emirates has specially-bottled them in small glass tubes, reducing wastage and ensuring the perfect wine every time.
5. Dedicated wine selectors
Some airlines treat wine selection as a competition asking local judges to turn up and taste, but for Emirates, choosing which wines will fly, when and where from is a full-time occupation which is why they outsource it to specialists. Oliver Dixon works for a company called MMI and he is responsible for buying all Emirates wines, for cellaring them and for selecting the precise moment when to pull them from the cellars and put them on the planes. Part of his job involves forging relationships with producers over many years ensuring that he gets the allocations, the quality and the quantity he needs at every level.
If you’re going to spend 10 hours in a metal tube, it’s worth choosing one which goes the extra mile to make it as comfortable and pleasant as possible. This last time I was a guest, but as a wine-lover, I’d say it will be Emirates all the way for me from now on!
Disclaimer: Cathy Marston was a guest of Emirates Airline but all thoughts and opinions are her own.