The business behind Economy Class Wines

Following on from our recent tips on which wine to choose while flying economy, we now pull back the curtain dividers to see how an airline chooses its Economy Class wines.

Not all economy class wines are the same

Many airlines take their wine selection process seriously, and for many others, it’s an afterthought. Generally speaking, budget airlines where you have to pay for your wine tend to have innocuous offerings, whereas the major international carriers where the alcohol is given out freely is where you’ll score better quality wines. There is major competition for your flying dollar at this level, and they realise wine could be a deciding factor on which carrier you fly with.

These airlines employ highly esteemed winemakers, wine writers and Masters of Wines to choose the on board selection. Being Australian, I get to fly Qantas a lot, it uses a crack team of sommeliers who work alongside airline’s head chef Neil Perry, of Rockpool restaurant fame. These aren’t just any sommeliers of course, they are headed by Sebastian Crowther, one of only two Master Sommeliers in Australia (there are only 239 in the world). As a former somm myself, I believe there’s a lot to be said for an airline that links its entire wine portfolio to the food it serves, even the better value Economy Class wines.

Sebastian Crowther (left) tasting his way through wines for Qantas

With all airlines, the ‘celebrity’ selection panel used in press releases only has the final ‘approval’, the heavy lifting, so to speak, is done by an initial selection committee.

In Qantas’ case, the economy class wine selection criteria and the man who heads it up hasn’t’ changed in 10 years. Trent Andrews is the Wine Buyer for Qantas; it’s his relationships with the wineries of Australia that has given the airline such a revered economy class wine list. I kid you not, it has served 33 different wines in economy over the past 12 months. These are vintaged wines, sourced from premium Australian wine regions, many coming from prestigious producers like Penfolds, Primo Estate and Killikinoon. Airlines like Qantas are in a very fortunate position, the buying power coupled with the prestige of being flown on the national carrier, means airlines are able to offer excellent Economy Class that bat well above their weight in the quality stakes.

Producers contact Trent initially, indicating they have a wine that could be perfect for Economy Class. They’ll pass on information such as the wine’s variety, region, vintage and volume, as well as the expected per litre price. After Trent judges the wine on these merits, he requests samples from the winery, which are then forwarded to Qantas’ sommeliers for appraisal.

Some interesting flying facts

  • Only 1/3 of all wines submitted to Qantas pass the stringent Economy Class quality test
  • Qantas is Australia’s third biggest purchaser of wine, which gives it a lot of clout to buy  excellent value for money wines
  • On international flights in economy, there are always two whites available to drink (a Chardonnay and one other variety) and two reds (a Shiraz and one other variety)
  • If you don’t recognise a wine label in economy, don’t be surprised if it’s a well-known, more expensive wine that has been rebadged by the winemaker. Often this is because it’s a wine that has previously been in business class or simply a wine that they wanted to sell quickly in order to free up space in the winery’s storage facility.
  • There is major prestige associated with being a supplier to Qantas – it’s not unusual for a winemaker to get up to 50 enquiries per month if they are on the Qantas wine list – whether it’s first, business or economy.

Independent Sommeliers review Qantas’ Economy Class Wines

I called in an independent panel of sommeliers to secretly taste the Economy Class wines chosen by Qantas’ Sommelier Selection panel from Rockpool.

Here’s what they had to say…

Chris Morrison, (who has worked everywhere:  Guillaume at Bennelong, Quay, est, Becasse, and Coq d’Argent in London, and has just released his first book, “This Is Not a Wine Guide“.)

“When you’re travelling in economy, you’re really looking for style and structure more than varietal character, and I think the wineries have hit their note really well with these. And I think Australia does these wine styles incredibly well.”

Chris’ picks

  • Thorn Clark Eden Valley 2016 Riesling
  • Robert Oatley Pocketwatch Central Ranges 2015 Shiraz (Victoria)
  • Rawsons Retreat 2015 Shiraz Cabernet
  • Killikinoon 2015 Shiraz Cabernet

Shanteh Wong (Assistant Head Sommelier, Quay Restaurant)

“I’m really surprised by the amount of variety, the amount of regionality; the quality of winemaking from this selection is quite outstanding. I wouldn’t say there was any wine here today that was incorrect in terms of varietal style, or there was a big winemaking fault of any kind. I think they were all stand-up examples from where they are and wines that would suit an array of different people and tastes.”

Shanteh’s top picks

  • Rymill 2015 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon (Souh Australia)
  • Robert Oatley Pocketwatch Central Ranges 2015 Shiraz (Victoria)

Qantas and The Wine Wankers

  • in 2017, The Wine Wankers, along with a handful of other Australian social media peeps, started working closely with QANTAS to create content and write stories that would promote and inspire travel. Together, we are known as QCollective. Working with Qantas was a no brainer for us – the quality of the Australian wines it has on board is something to be very proud of!
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13 comments

  1. Interesting article Drew. My feeling is that what you drink/taste on the ground is nowhere near the same as what you drink and taste in a metal capsule thousands of feet above the ground. I’ve found a lot of the wines and food for that matter rather disappointing from that standpoint. I think more attention needs to be paid to the physical/physiological differences and serve wines that stand up to that test. It’s a shame to do all that hard work and still not achieve what is intended. But maybe I’m just being too picky. Cheers

    Liked by 1 person

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