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It’s more than just knowing your Chablis from your Chardonnay. Keith Isaac, Master of Wine and general manager of Castelnau Wine Agencies, has been consulting with British Airways on its wine programme for Club World since 2010. He tells The Faster Track how the plane’s destination, BA’s brand values and the fruitiness of the wine all play a part in selecting the right bottle.
How do you decide which wines to put on the menu?
We select two reds and two whites for each long-haul region. One red and one white will always be European, and the other two will depend on the destination region. For example, if you’re going to California, then you’ll have a choice of perhaps a Pouilly-Fumé from the Loire and a Napa Valley Chardonnay. We make sure there’s a contrast between the style and grape variety.
That sounds like a lot of wine tasting. Tell us more…
Last year we tasted about 2,000 wines for BA. We always compare like-for-like in terms of regions – we wouldn’t compare a Californian Chardonnay with an Australian one. We pick from a range of suppliers, based on our knowledge of the châteaux, vintage and producers. We nearly always taste blind to ensure there’s no bias, and mark the wines on a 20-point scale to make a shortlist. I normally taste with two other qualified colleagues, so we get a slightly different perspective and a balance of tasters.
How important are awards?
We flag up on the menu if they’ve won medals or scored highly in the key wine magazines, but we never buy a wine just because it has a gold medal – it must get through us first! It’s nice when we buy a wine before it goes on to win medals; an Australian red that was on board in May went on to win a hatful of medals and trophies.
How often do the selections change?
Every month – not every wine will change, but one or two will. It helps frequent flyers try something different and BA’s Club World goes through high volumes – about 82,000 bottles a month, nearly one million a year. There are some great new wines this month, such as a Pinot Noir from Alderbrook, California on the North American routes.
How innovative can you be with your selections?
You can be a bit different, but there’s a strong brand reassurance with customers. Saint-Emilion, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Chablis have a brand value and are popular. I could find a great wine from Romania, but customers might think it’s only listed because it’s cheap. But we did have a Brazilian Chardonnay on for July to coincide with the World Cup, and will have a Mas de Daumas Gassac white in the autumn.
Does the way we taste wine change at 35,000ft?
Yes. There are two things we look for on the ground that translate well in the air. The first is lots of fruit. The second, for reds only, is that the tannins are ripe and the palate is subtle and silken. So we haven’t bought Barolo or Barbaresco wine for BA because we find they don’t work particularly well in the air.
Which wine would you choose to drink on board?
A good Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. Though I’d try all of them because I’m naturally curious about wine – and very greedy!