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Wines with Altitude?

by Tom Cannavan, 10/12

I've just completed a fascinating day of wine judging, on behalf of Skyscanner, the global travel search site that provides online comparisons for millions of flights on over a thousand airlines. This was the second year that I have chaired the tasting panel as Skyscanner lined up the wines served by short-haul airlines in an attempt to find the best wines in the skies.

tasting room The tasting took place in a suitably lofty venue - the rooftop suite at Edinburgh's Point hotel - and whilst this didn't quite amount to the approriate 35,000 feet of altitude for the tasting, it was certainly a glorious venue overlooking the castle and the city.

When we ran the first competition in 2011, the tasting panel was mostly made up of wine enthusiasts from around the world, all members of the Skyscanner workforce. For the 2012 edition the panel was 50% composed of wine professionals including educators, writers, wine tasters and sommeliers, and 50% from Skyscanner's pool of in-house wine buffs. But the format was the same: a completely blind tasting, where the identities of the wines and airlines who'd supplied them was unknown, and where each of the 12 panelist's scores (minus highest and lowest) was totted up to find the winning white and red wines.

Sky high wines

Given the lack of 35,000 feet of air below us (not to mention the pressurised cabin, engine noise and of course, little plastic drinking cups) my advice was to judge the wines as they normally would in any competition, but perhaps to reward 'boldness' a little more. The conditions in the sky are not perfect for the very serious contemplation of a wine's more subtle aspects I believe, so a combination of de facto quality and vividness of flavour was our holy grail.

Last year, the winning white and red went to two very different airlines: budget carrier Easyjet walked off with the trophy for its crunchy South West France white wine, whilst British Airways scooped the red award with an Argentinean Malbec. This year's samples from budget, scheduled and charter airline companies certainly spanned the globe in terms of their origins, and in terms of how they were packaged, from full 70cl bottles, to miniature bottles in glass and plastic, to Tetrapack.   
Watch this short video about the judging day

As we began the day of tasting I wondered if Easyjet and BA could possibly make it two in a row, especially as each had introduced new ranges on board since the previous competition. In fact, neither took a top spot, though both did creditably with one wine from each of the airlines making it into the top five lists of the day.

The 2012 results

There was some surprise last year when buget airline Easyjet scooped one of the top places, and once again it was perhaps a surprise name that was revealed as supplier of the winning red wine: holiday charter specialist Thomson Airways. Their red wine - the Finca La Linda Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 from Argentina - was the clear winner amongst the judges, with Scandinavia's SAS five points behind in second place, and Turkey's leading budget carrier Pegasus Airlines in third place. The Finca La Linda was my own top wine of the reds, coming mid-way through a run of rather lacklustre wines (in truth I found the white wines of generally more consistent quality), but being a stand-out wine full of deep fruit flavours, smokiness and good balance.

But it was the white wine winner that really made my day to be honest, as in a closely-fought contest Germany's Lufthansa edged out the Netherland's KLM and easyJet (just four points separated the top three wines) with a flag-flying dry Riesling. It was a surprise and delight to me that the Peter and Peter Trocken Riesling from the Mosel saw off fashionable Verdejos and Sauvignon Blancs and indeed it was a terrific wine and my number two of the line-up, really crisp and fresh but wonderfully aromatic and vivid too.

The full list of the top five wines in each category follows, but it is worth noting that KLM and Pegasus were the most consistent performers, featuring in each of the top fives, and that KLM now holds the distinction of being the only airline to appear in the top five for each category for two years in a row.

Congratulations to the airlines in the list below - it just goes to show that if any airline can choose its wines carefully, it can offer its customers in the sky a seriously good glass.

White Red
1. Lufthansa: Peter & Peter Riesling, Mosel, Germany 1. Thomson: Finca La Linda, Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Argentina
2. KLM: Terra Andina Sauvignon Blanc-Chardonnay 2012, Chile 2. SAS: Backhouse, Pinot Noir, 2011, USA,
3. Easyjet: Louis Mondeville, Sauvignon Blanc, Pays d'Oc, 201, France 3. Pegasus: Kavaklidere, Angora 2011, Turkey
4. Pegasus: Kavaklidere, Cankaya 2011, Turkey 4. BMI: Grand Sud, Merlot, France
5. BA & Iberia: Bodegas Matarromera, Verdejo 2011, Spain 5. KLM: Terra Andina, Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot 2011, Chile