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 how the ‘plane’s destination, British Airways’ 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 white will always be European, and the other two will depend on the destination region. For example if you’re going to Cape Town, then you’ll have a choice of perhaps a Sancerre Domaine Bailly-Reverdy 2014, which is a Sauvignon Blanc of course and Ataraxia Chardonnay 2014 from Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge. We make sure there’s a contrast between the style and grape variety.
Offering that amount of choice must mean tasting a lot of wine?
Last year we tasted about 2 000 wines for British Airways. 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 always taste with one other qualified colleague, Kate Roseveare, so we get a slightly different perspective and balance of opinion.
How important are awards?
We flag on the menu if they’ve won awards 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 coming up on the Cape Town/ London route over the next few months such as the Oldenburg Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 (5-stars from Platter) and a Condrieu Les Ravines 2013 from Niéro which gets 93 points form Parker. For the first time there’ll also be an amazing Amarone della Valpolicella 2010 from Buglioni, which we are just signing off.
How innovative can you be with your selections?
You can be a bit different – Condrieu and Amarone certainly both are – 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 2014 to coincide with the World Cup, and a Mas Daumas Gassac white earlier this year.
Does the way we taste wine change at 35 000 feet?
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 British Airways 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.
About Keith Isaac, Master of Wine
Keith has worked at Castelnau Wine Agencies since 1987, taking over as general manager in 1996. Prior to that he worked in sales at City Vintagers Ltd, a London-based wholesaler.
He passed MW in 1989, and for a number of years tutored, examined and latterly sat as chair of the examination panel, before stepping down in 2008.
He read History at Selwyn College, Cambridge, graduating in 1981, having spent many hours on the river, rowing for Selwyn and winning a CUBC Trial Eights cap in not a very strong year.
He is married with two teenage children, plays golf, and like an alarming number of middle-aged men in England dons ill-fitting Lycra to go cycling with his friends at weekends and in France in the summer.