Ronald Khoo is the Assistant Manager for Wine & Spirits at Cathay Pacific Airways. He is responsible for selecting quality wines and spirits for inflight services and airport lounges. Here he shares his personal insights and experiences on the intricacies in selecting wines for flights.
How are wine aromatics and the taste impacted by altitude, the low pressure and humidity in the aircraft cabin?
Well, in general, we know that our senses are adversely impacted by lower cabin air pressure and lower humidity. Depending on the aircraft, our cabins are pressurized at between 5000-7000 feet above sea level. The lower cabin air pressure causes aromas to dissipate more quickly and our mucus membranes to swell. Lower humidity dries out the follicles in our nose. This numbs our sense of smell (by 30% according to science). For wine lovers, this is a big issue as the sense of smell plays a big part in our perceived pleasure of wine.
From reading Charles Spence’s Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, I learnt that the background sound from the plane engines may suppress our ability to taste with the exception of umami flavors.
How does this affect the taste of sparkling, white and red wines?
From my own tasting experience on board, red wines with higher tannins seem harsher and more bitter at higher altitudes and tart white wines will taste even more acidic. Champagne seems a tad acidic but if it has a higher dosage and is more robust in style, I feel it works.
Which wines’ styles taste better in the air?
The wine panel and I prefer wines that lean towards more forward flavors and high fruit definition. Fruitier wines, and varieties with more upfront flavors such as Shiraz, Beaujolais, Chardonnay, fruity Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir with great fruit seem to do well. Subtle wines like Riesling and Pinot Grigio generally don’t work as well as aromas don’t show up. But sometimes exceptions do appear.
What is the wine selection procedure for flights?
We invite wineries to tender according to the specifications in our wine strategy. We list different wine styles in different rotations and different cabins. Once we shortlist what works from the tender, we obtain samples and conduct a blind tasting in Hong Kong by the Cathay wine panel. It normally takes us 3 days and we taste up to 350 wines in total. We may select up to 50 wines from this tasting which will allow us to run for 1 rotation.
How often do you change your wine selections?
Some wines are changed every 3 months, others every 6 months, and some on an ad hoc basis depending on the allocation quantity we can secure.
Do you serve different wines on long and short haul flights, flight destinations? Why?
The styles of wine served are generally similar between long and short haul flights. For First Class there will be a Champagne, two whites, three reds and one sweet. For Business Class one Champagne, two whites, two reds and a sweet. For Premium Economy and Economy one white and one red.
When we fly to destinations which are main wine producing countries, we will include wines from that country. For example, we would honor Italy with an Italian red or white wine on our flights to and from Italy.
Do flight staff receive wine education and wine service training?
Yes, Cathay Pacific’s Learning Academy which trains our cabin crew includes a wine module. On top of this, I also conduct and organise ad-hoc tastings from vineyard representatives for cabin crew focused on key wines from our partners such as Deutz and Lynch-Bages.
What is the current trend in terms of wine packaging to ease the opening and to mitigate wine faults?
Our cabin crew are well trained to open any kind of bottle so wine closure is not our main focus. We prefer to focus on what’s inside the bottle.
What other types of issues do you have to consider when making wine selections?
Other than the quality of the wine, some other things we would review include, the suitability of the wine brand for the cabin. For example, we would serve Grand Cru Bordeaux in First Class.
The name of the wine should be appropriate and not be offensive, nor have an insensitive name.
The shape and size of the wine bottle needs to be taken into consideration. Most of the regular ones are fine but if the bottle is of a much bigger dimension in width or height, it may not fit our bar cart configuration.
The weight of the wine bottle. We would of course prefer it to be lighter but this is not a deal breaker especially if the wine is of great quality.
Is wine and food pairing a criterion in the selection of wine styles?
It’s complex because we have many menu selections depending on flight destinations. We try our best to have a variety of styles from old to new world, light to full bodied etc. We look for a range of different wines styles which are versatile enough to pair with the varied menu selections that we serve on board.
What wine styles and wine origins are the most popular in economy, business, first class?
In First and Business, Champagne, white Burgundy, red Bordeaux and Australian Shiraz are popular.
In Economy, red and white wines are equally popular.
Do you think F&B, and the wine selection play an important role in building up brand loyalty with passengers?
I think it is important because it adds great value to the overall customer experience.
When you fly what styles of wines do you typically enjoy drinking and why?
I enjoy Champagne a lot. A glass of champagne at the start of my flight puts me into a calm state of mind to enjoy the flight. I generally try to match my wines with the food so it pretty much goes with what I am eating.