They meet three or four times a year: Tom Carson, Vanya Cullen and Stephen Pannell. Award-winning winemakers, all blessed with immense knowledge and extremely sharp palates.
Their job: to decide what wines we will be drinking when we fly with the Australian national airline, Qantas, whether we are lucky enough to be flying first class, business class or in the cheap seats at the back.
At a cruising altitude of 40,000 feet, the air is dry and this means taste buds are less sensitive and the sense of smell is slightly diminished.
The panel have been together for almost a decade now and know exactly what to look for – and theirs is a serious task with Qantas investing over $15 million in wine each year.
The airline is the third-biggest wine buyer in the country behind Woolworths and Coles, and its customers drink 2.5 million bottles of wine per year.
Carson, Cullen and Pannell have to select more than 250 different wines each year from more than 150 different producers, showcasing the diversity of the Australian industry and possibly helping to make the reputation of a small winery that gets a first or business class listing.
Qantas has shone at the 'Cellars in the Sky' awards over the past four years, winning awards including best overall wine cellar and best-presented first class wine list.
All wines served on Qantas are Australian with the exception of some New Zealand wines on trans-Tasman flights and Champagne at the sharp end; and Pannell is keen for Australian sparkling wines to be served in the future. “I'd like to highlight the best sparkling wines from Australia – but volumes available and cost can be issues for the airline,” he says.
So what exactly are our trio: Carson from Yabby Lake and Heathcote Estate in Victoria, Cullen from Cullen Wines in Margaret River and Pannell from SC Pannell Wines in McLaren Vale, looking for when they test the many contenders.
I caught up with the trio at St Hallett winery in the Barossa Valley – big red country – where they were tackling around 1100 contenders, all tasted blind, over three days.
“The wines we choose have to show quality, balance and elegance, even at a young age,” says Carson, who is also chief judge at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show. “That's different to at a wine show, where judges may be looking for wines that will age for a decade or more.
“We are not looking at the price of the wines; that doesn't come into consideration for this panel. The quality and drinkability of the wine is paramount. If it is a good wine then it goes on the list, whether that means first class, business or economy. Immediate accessibility is one of the keys. We are looking for wines to be enjoyed now, not cellared for a decade or more.”
Pannell says balance is key to choosing the right wines. “If something is out of balance; oak, acid or tannins, then that will be accentuated when that wine is consumed in the air.”
“Wines that are fresh and fruity tend to taste better in the air than wines that are say, big and oaky,” Cullen believes.
And even small producers get the chance to shine. “There might only be a few cases of some wines available -or there might be thousands,” says Cullen. “They are all judged on their merit.”
Pannell, who was actually a childhood friend of Cullen – both their families were pioneers in Margaret River – says the panel has “disagreements” all the time. “But in the end you have to think about which wine will be best for the customer, whether that is a chardonnay or a new variety like a fiano.”
The Emirates Way
Not all airlines go the same way about choosing their wines. Emirates, with 82 flights a week out of Australia, has a global list as it flies to over 80 countries.
The then Emirates senior vice-president of aircraft catering, Robin Padgett, said a panel of experts, including airline staff, decide which wines make the grade.
“Our policy is to select the best wines available to suit the cabin and route requirement,” Padgett said.
“The team that select wines, which includes our President Tim Clark, have great skill at choosing wines that will work at altitude, and also complement Emirates’ in-flight menus.
“All the team fly often and are able to compare how the wines develop in the air. Again, our experience of reviewing wines on the ground and in the air tells us that if it’s a brilliant wine on terra firma, it will still be a brilliant wine at altitude.
“Our wines are chosen by fine wine specialists. A pre-selection is made and presented to a panel which includes Emirates senior management before a final selection is made.”
Padgett says guidelines include looking for wines with good acidity as acidity tends to flatten at altitude, and the airline likes to have wines with strong characteristics as they often show better.
“The key to Emirates’ wine offering is to ensure that there is a good mix, which is attractive to varied palates, as well as offering wines from world-class producers who are recognised globally for their quality,” Padgett says.
“Our policy is to serve wines when ready to drink, even with wines like Bordeaux, which require a lot of ageing before reaching maturity. We purchase a lot of our wine very early and it is then aged in France until ready to be poured on board. Currently Emirates has enough Bordeaux wine to last until 2016. This is a massive investment not taken by many of our competitors.”
Padgett says that while France plays a key role on all lists (and there is always a Bordeaux on board), “We love wine from all over the world. We are great fans of Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Argentina, Spain, the USA, South Africa…In fact anywhere that makes great wine.”
Emirates is the world's largest buyer of Dom Perignon Champagne – which is served in first class and Padgett says: “We are really lucky in having a strategy on wine that isn’t encumbered by the normal rules an airline would put on wine. Emirates has invested significant funds into a forward thinking wine-buying strategy to ensure that we can always offer our passengers the best quality, choice and exclusive wines on board.”