For most travellers, choosing a wine to enjoy with their meal in business class or first class can be as simple as opening the wine list and selecting a drop, perhaps even in 15 seconds – but the process before that, where that day’s wine list is put together, can be 15 years in the making.
Australian Business Traveller sat down with Emirates’ Senior Vice President, Catering in Dubai, Joost Heymeijer, to learn more about how vino gets from the winery to an Emirates wine list.
What makes a wine perform well in the sky?
Because the drier air of an aircraft cabin can make tastebuds less sensitive, wines that drink well on the ground may not necessarily be as enjoyable in the air, so each drop is carefully selected, with a preference often given to wines with a well-rounded balance of acidity, fruit flavours and tannins.
“It’s not so much the bolder wines we look for, though: we just like to present wines that are ready,” says Joost, a Dutch-Australian for whom wine has been a profession since 18 years of age.
“There are certain trains of thought when people say that a Pinot or a Cabernet doesn’t work in the air, but I think if you serve a wine that’s just nearing its peak, for example, a Barossa Shiraz that drinks great now – you feel the power in the glass, and five years from now, you drink it again and it’s still good – it’s in that period we like to serve our wines.”
“Cabin pressure and humidity are the biggest enemies of anything you consume on an aircraft, but realistically, you’d be at the same (cabin) ‘altitude’ if you were in the Swiss Alps, or a bit higher up than Mount Kosciuszko: at 2,500 metres, at a nice ski resort having a meal."
“You wouldn’t ask the sommelier in your lodge on the Alps, “can you recommend a wine that performs well at altitude?”, so we just make sure that we’ve got well-trained staff, with proper glassware and terrific wines that stand up to the rigours of cabin pressure and humidity."
“We believe some of the leaner wines show better: a Riesling is nice to drink, a Sauvignon Blanc is nice to drink, but then a Chablis is nice to drink."
“Something heavier, like a Gewürztraminer, is probably more difficult, but then again a beautiful sweet wine: a Noble One or Château d'Yquem, they work very well in the air too.”
For this reason, Emirates’ wine tastings aren’t conducted at altitude or in a pressurised environment: “we don’t need to”, Joost says, adding that “we can’t specify a wine for a particular aircraft type”, including for the Boeing 787s and Boeing 777Xs Emirates currently has on order.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do with the new Boeings yet, they’re some time away, but I think if the cabin pressure and humidity improves (compared to today’s aircraft), an already good wine will only get better, so I don’t think I need to adjust anything there.”
Emirates’ wine selection process: the initial tastings
When it comes to choosing the right vino to serve on board, Joost attends tasting sessions at least once per month with a group of specialists from both the airline and its UAE-based alcohol importer, MMI, which has a dedicated fine wine division that works closely with Emirates.
“We do that here in Dubai because we want to be able to taste them under local conditions, but the wine and beverage staff who work with me and with MMI will taste even more often than I do,” Joost shares.
“But mostly, we buy wines early, so we go to market instead – especially in France, during what they call the en primeur season: say, in April this year. We were able to taste the wines of the grapes that were growing in 2017: harvested in ‘17, still in massive vats, so they’re not in the bottle yet."
“So we go to France, we taste them early, and we decide early what we’re going to buy."
“That’s geared around how large the airline will be 10-15 years from now, because some of the wines that are going on our first class wine list, we will cellar for 10-15 years. There’s quite a bit of mathematics involved!”
However, the airline’s chefs generally aren’t involved in the wine selection process: a task that Joost says would be “impossible”.
“For one thing, here in Dubai, none of our dishes are cooked with alcohol, so the core of our food philosophy is the cuisine. Our menus also change, mostly on a monthly rotation in a block of four months."
“That makes it very difficult to pair wines: plus, some wines I might have 10,000 bottles, some of them I might have only 1,500 bottles, and it is physically impossible to match."
“However, in partnership with Dom Pérignon’s executive chef, we’ve developed a series of canapés in first class to match with the ’09,” which are inspired by the region you’re travelling to and vary between routes.
On a recent first class flight from Singapore to Brisbane, for example, the canapés offered were confit duck with curried pineapple, a parmesan and truffle arancino and a poached prawn and guacamole tartlet:
Emirates’ wine selection process: the Presidential seal of approval
Sticking with the wine, after many tasting sessions, “every four months, we have a formal sign-off tasting where Sir Tim Clark (President of Emirates) is present.
“We present to him a series of wines that we would like to purchase, or those we would like his opinion about,” Joost continues. “Tim would never call himself a wine ‘specialist’, but he loves his wine.
“He’s been very visionary in that rather than buying the wines that are available in the marketplace or through a consultant, as many other airlines do, why don’t we define what the backbone of how our wines are, how we want to structure most of our wine list, and then buying wines early.”
So far this year, Emirates has purchased what Joost could only describe as “X million bottles of wine”, which are destined for Emirates’ cellars.
Emirates’ private wine cellars in France
As the airline’s strategy is to buy wine well before it’s ready to drink, it must be kept somewhere – so Emirates operates its own cellar facilities in Burgundy, France, where approximately seven million bottles of wine are currently stored for enjoyment in the years to come.
“You know, when people hear the word ‘cellar’, they’ve got these romantic notions of arches and sandstone and wall-to-wall Champagne… ours, however, is an industrial estate,” Joost says honestly.
“You’d drive past it on a highway and would think it might be a self-storage unit – it’s 12 metres high, pallets stacked six-high, but there’s nothing sexy about it."
“It’s really about the humidity, the temperature and lack of light, which is all computer-controlled. Some of it will only be there for five years, some of it 10, some of it 15, but the racking is set up such that we’ve already indicated when we would need to get it shipped.”
“When that day comes, the wine goes from a temperature-controlled environment to a temperature-controlled truck, into temperature-controlled reefers, onto a vessel where we have probes to check along the way, and then it’s collected in Dubai and transported into temperature-controlled warehouses, before being distributed all over the world, with two exceptions."
“We have some fairly large storage in Sydney, and some fairly large storage in Brazil, and from there we distribute all over Australia, and all over South America, respectively.”
Planning a wine journey to France? Sorry, you won’t be able to pop by this cellar! “Access to these buildings is super-tight, like getting into Fort Knox: there are very few people that have access.”
But what about vintage Champagne..?
While Emirates keeps a solid stash of whites and reds in its own cellars, when it comes to Champagne, that remains in the cellars of each Champagne House until they’re ready to release it.
“The 2009 Dom Pérignon that we’re pouring now in first class was kept in Dom Pérignon’s cellars until 2017: and we only got it in ’17,” Joost shares as an example, adding that “we have a relationship with the House of Moët Hennessy that goes back about 27 years, when we poured our first Dom Pérignon in first class.
“It’s a relationship that works both ways – when you say you’re pouring someone a glass of Dom Pérignon, you’re saying you’re being collected in a Bentley: you don’t have to explain it!"
“There are other luxury Champagnes out there, but can they provide the consistency and the volume each year? Probably not. Is a Bentley better than a Rolls-Royce? I’m not sure: that’s a personal taste, but we never have to explain what Dom Pérignon is about."
“We’ve cemented that relationship because it’s part of the Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH) Group, so there are lots of other wines too: Cloudy Bay and Cape Mentelle are part of the Group, and there are other wineries in Château d'Yquem that are part of the group.
“With Moët Hennessy, we see benefits even in business class, where if you were to leave Dubai in business class today, we would serve you a Moët Rosé and a non-vintage Champagne as a choice before take-off."
“And, sometimes (LVMH) might throw in a nice chunk of the vintage Champagne – in first class (on selected flights), we’re currently pouring the Dom Pérignon P2 (Second Plénitude) 2000, which is a stunning wine which they keep in their cellars, so you’re drinking an 18-year-old wine in first class."
“Then you can choose if you want to drink the Dom ‘09 or the P2 2000: totally, completely different wines, because it’s not that they’ve kept the bottle longer, they’ve actually matured it longer, and only disgorged it at the very last minute, so the development of the wine is completely different."
Business class Champagne is ready to drink
For the most part, Champagne served in Emirates business class is non-vintage, Moët et Chandon being the staple on flights to Australia, but that can change from time to time.
“We’re currently pouring a Veuve Extra Brut Extra Old on selected flights which is a great glass of wine,” Joost comments, with a claim that Emirates is the only airline in the world to stock this Champagne:
“We’re also about to start serving a 2008 Moët Grand Vintage in business class. Sometimes, you just need to be lucky!”
“But to just to keep them a bit honest, we also serve Laurent-Perrier on certain routes, which unlike Moët and Veuve, is not part of the LVMH stable.”
Joost’s advice for choosing a wine on your next Emirates flight
“For me, I often look at the wine list first, and then I decide what to eat,” says the wine aficionado, “but if I can’t decide on a wine, I’ll ask the crew for two glasses and will taste them side by side."
“The crew love it, because they get to talk about wine a little bit, and often it’s the purser and the cabin supervisor who serve the wine: the two most experienced people on the aircraft."
But if, like most people, your eyes peruse the food menu before the wine list, “if you read that wine list in business class, we give an indication of what type of meal that wine would go well with."
“I’m not a purist that says “you have to have white with fish”, because there are certain red wines that will go really well with a particular, non-traditional dish.”
If you’re flying on the Airbus A380, “the wines are also served at the bar at the rear of the plane: that’s a nice spot to taste some of the them too."
“But for me, I think about the opportunity… some of these wines are so rare that you’ll never get to drink them again, or you couldn’t afford to drink them again. When I see those, I say, “I’ll have that”.”
Chris Chamberlin travelled to Dubai as a guest of Emirates.