Photo: Emirates Airline

If you had been lucky enough to be in first class on the special Emirates flight (EK075) from Dubai to Paris on April 26, you would have been able to enjoy a unique wine tasting.

The airline launched its first Emirates Vintage Collection with Château Cheval Blanc 2004, and the wine estate’s commercial director, Arnaud de Laforcade, was on board to offer a surprise master class in the A380’s luxe onboard lounge.

Photo: Emirates Airline

Aged for up to 15 years in Emirates’ cellars, the 2004 Cheval Blanc is one of four stellar Bordeaux wines that will be served in first class on select routes for limited periods throughout the rest of the year.

The others are Château Haut Brion 2004, Château Mouton Rothschild 2001 and Château Margaux 1998.

More rare wines will be added over the next few years as they reach peak maturity.

If you tried to buy them in a retail shop, they’d cost €500-1,000 a bottle; in a restaurant, as much as four times that.

But the Emirates Vintage Collection is just the latest innovation for a carrier that has one of the best, if not the best, wine lists in its premium cabins.

The selection in first class includes at least a dozen wines, not counting special promotions.

In business, there are typically six, among them a Champagne and port as in first.

Photo: Emirates Airline

The wines are ever-changing because many of them are only available in small quantities.

In first class on EK 75 in mid-October, for example, you could choose between Dom Pérignon 2009 and Veuve Clicquot Extra Brut Extra Old as a Champagne, sip Ermitage Blanc de l’Orée Michel Chapoutier 2006, Y d’Yquem 2015 and/or Dreissigacker Wunderwerk Riesling Trocken 2016 as whites; sample five reds, Château Léoville-Poyferré, Saint Julien 2006, Château Barde-Haut 2004, Domaine A F Gros Richebourg Grand Cru 2007, Bodegas Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2008 and Caiarossa 2009, and finish with the dessert wine Château Suduiraut 2007 or Graham’s Colheita 1963, Single Vintage Tawny Port.

Photo: Emirates Airline

You could also try the few business class wines that didn’t overlap with those in first.

Detailed descriptions always accompany each wine, as do general suggestions for pairing with food.

The write-up for the Ermitage Blanc de l’Orée, for instance, recommends: “Pair with rich seafood, spicy fish dishes, and medium-strength cheeses.”

Emirates regards wine as such an important part of the journey that you can look up the list for your flight in advance just by typing in your flight number or route on the website.

The scope of the program is staggering. Emirates serves about 70 different wines across its network every day, more than 200 during the course of a year.

Wine consumption in first and business class topped 2.3 million bottles in 2017 and is projected to rise to 2.5 million bottles in 2020.

The airline stores 7 million bottles in its cellars in Burgundy, France, some of which won’t be ready to drink until 2035.

It has invested more than $780-million in wine since 2006, and last year purchased $56-million worth of wines and Champagnes in France alone.

The keys to establishing and maintaining this service have been foresight, patience, and planning, according to Joost Heymeijer, Emirates’ senior vice president, in-flight catering.

Photo: Emirates Airline

“Around 2005-2006, the airline’s president, Sir Tim Clark, decided to buck the trend of using a consultant and buying only the wines that were available,” he explains.

“As a wine collector, he wanted to give guests a chance to drink what he liked to drink, so we started buying wines to cellar, sometimes still in the barrel and at reasonable prices. Now those wines have become rare and very expensive, so other airlines can’t afford to buy them, and our passengers are enjoying the fruits of our labor.”

While Emirates currently sources from twelve wine-producing countries ranging from Argentina to the U.S.A., wines from Bordeaux, especially reds, are the backbone of the list, and not just because of Clark’s interest in that region and France in general.

“The beauty of Bordeaux is that it makes stunning wines that show exceptionally well in the air if served at the right time, and we can get them in the quantity we need,” Heymeijer points out.

“We also feature Burgundy, but the runs on the list are much shorter because the wines aren’t made in the same volume.”

Heymeijer says that the personal relationships Emirates has developed with winemakers and exclusive houses set its wine program apart from other airlines’.

“We visit them and bring them to Dubai to meet our wine buyers,” he says.

“It’s essential to build trust. They want to know that we’ll respect their wines, introduce them to the right clientele, use the right glassware and train our staff properly. They don’t have to sell to us; they’ll sell out anyway.”

He adds that Emirates is the number one global trading partner with Dom Perignon, the Champagne always served in first class and also has an excellent relationship with New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay, which gives the carrier a very high allocation of its sought-after Sauvignon Blanc.

Wines are purchased continuously year-round, though traditions in each region sometimes dictate when.

“The season in Bordeaux is in April,” Heymeijer says. “That’s when we have an opportunity to go and taste vintages before they’re bottled and assess how good the wines are going to be. If the quality isn’t up to our standards, we won’t buy that year.”

Procurement, shipment, and storage are handled MMI (Maritime & Mercantile International), a government-approved importer and seller of which Emirates is an owner.

Heymeijer says the typical parcel size is 20,000 to 30,000 bottles for business class, and the smallest quantity the airline will buy is about 800 bottles, though this is a rare occurrence, and the wine would only be served in first class on specific routes.

Photo: Emirates Airline

Deciding which wines to put on which flights is a daunting task, as are the logistics of getting the right wines on the right aircraft to the right destination.

Emirates has a panel of wine experts, a sommelier who works closely with Heymeijer and a logistics specialist to handle these challenges.

The airline currently divides the world into five regions to make allocations: the UK and the Americas (U.S.A. and South America), Europe and Africa, the Far East, the Middle East, and Australasia.

Some have sub-regions, and Heymeijer says they may refine the regions even more, for instance, by separating the UK and the Americas or Europe and Africa.

“Destination is incredibly important,” he says. “We’re reading constantly and looking at the trends of what people are drinking. Americans like their own wines, so flights always include them, and U.K. and U.S.A. travelers appreciate rare vintages, so we’ll have them, too. We also consider whether the country we’re flying into is a wine destination that we can represent in the air.”

Photo: Emirates Airline

He says that they try not to duplicate grape varieties too much or to offer too many wines from the same country on a list.

In general, people like drinking big-name wines, so about 60 percent of the names will be recognizable and 40% will be discoveries.

Orders in business class are taken on hand-held devices, so they can collect data on consumption. The top choice is Champagne, and more than half of the reds people drink are from Bordeaux.

Heymeijer says Emirates would like to do more pairing wines with food, but the monthly menu rotations are among the factors that make that impossible, so only the Emirates Vintage Collection wines are matched with specific entrées.

New Champagne Pairing Canapés • Photo: Emirates Airline

However, the airline has worked with the executive chef of Dom Perignon to develop quintets of canapés with different flavor profiles to go with the Champagne for each of its five regions.

Emirates also has designed a special Champagne class with Dom Perignon, which is supplied by its glass company in the Czech Republic.

So is the rest of the glassware including a carafe that holds about 2 ½ glasses and is used for decanting all the red wines.

“We have a glass that allows the wine to breathe that I’d use at home,” Heymeijer says, “though we don’t have the space for something like a Riedel balloon glass.”

Beginning in 2019, Emirates is upping the ante on wine training. While all crew have long started with basic food and wine training and received more advanced training with a greater emphasis on wine skills as they moved up in class of service, the carrier is instituting WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) training that will provide globally recognized certification from the England-based trust.

Crew members who want to move to business and first class will be required to graduate from the program. “We’re currently developing a group of trainers,” Heymeijer says.

As far as the truism that wine tastes really different in the air goes, Heymeijer offers a pragmatic perspective.

“A lot of factors influence how things taste,” he points out.

“Our cabin pressure and humidity are at an optimum level, the same as being up 2,500 meters in the Swiss Alps. If you were there, you wouldn’t ask the sommelier to recommend a wine based on the altitude. You’d want a wine with a good mouth feel, good structure, a balance of acid, in other words, a wine at its peak regardless of grape variety. It’s the same on our planes.”