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Oz in the Air (November 6, 2001)

The flight attendant on the Qantas flight from Sydney to Los Angeles asked the fellow next to me if he wanted a drink before take-off.

"Something healthy,"he said.

"Water or juice?" offered the woman.

"Champagne!"he replied.

I’ve noticed that people on planes will drink champagne at any hour of the day or night if it's free. In Business Class on most airlines it is, and invariably it's the real stuff – champagne from the region of that name – not the local bubbly even if the rest of the wines on board are resolutely regional.

There is an expectation that champagne will be served as if air travel is a form of celebration. Since September 11 intrepid fliers need to be braced by champagne.

Since champagne is de rigeur on aircraft, it follows that the more expensive seat you buy the better the grade of champagne should be. In Business Class on Qantas they serve Charles Heidsieck Brut non-vintage ($44.95 retail in Ontario), a serviceable sparkler that is not helped by the stubby glass. In First Class they kick it up a notch to the lordly Krug Grande Cuvee ($149.95).

The problem with wines on planes is that it's hard to send back a corked bottle. The first wine I had on the flight out to Sydney (after the take-off champagne) was De Bartoli Windy Peak Riesling 2000; its mango and lime flavours with a hint of petrol were spoiled by an insidious whiff of cork taint.

Wines with broad, fruity flavours work best at 10,000 metres. So the Sepplelt Coralla Ridge Chardonnay 2000 with its spicy pineapple taste helped to pass the time. Wynn's Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 also showed well in the dry, recycled air although the oak predominated over the blackcurrant-redcurrant fruit. The wine of the night (and it was late since I'd already flown from Toronto to Los Angeles with a two hour lay-over there) was Jacob's Creek Shiraz Reserve 1999. The quintessential aircraft wine: no chess problem, just masses of minty, vanilla, blackberry fruit with lively acidity and soft tannins.

On the flight back (after spending a week in Adelaide at Tasting Australia, unquestionably the best food and wine event on this planet) I decided to give the airline cellar a real workout by asking for wines from First Class to be tasted along side comparable selections from Business. You might call it a little class warfare at a great height.

Grosset Riesling 2000 from Clare represented Business and Freycinet Vineyard Riesling 2000 from Tasmania carried First's colours. This Grosset bottling was broader than their exquisite Polish Hill I'd tasted at the winery, showing lime and sweet grapefruit flavours with a slightly oily finish. Freycinet was ripe and spicy with floral, lychee and tangerine notes, beautifully balanced but not worth the extra air fare. One up to First Class.

Next came Grosset Chardonnay 2000 (Business) versus Tower Estate Sauvignon Blanc 1999 from the Adelaide Hills (First). Grosset (spicy, clovey, pineapple and vanilla on the nose with ripe nectarine and melon flavours and nicely integrated oak) inched out Tower Estates'sweetish, passionfruit and grapefruit flavours.

Next came the reds – St. Hubert's Pinot Noir 1999 (Business) versus De Bartoli Pinot Noir 1998 (First) both from the Yarra Valley, a fair match if ever there was one. The first had a beetroot nose with a rich, velvety black raspberry flavour, firm and well structured, the mouthfeel mature and the tannins soft. De Bartoli showed cooked plum and vanilla on the nose with a sweet raspberry flavour. St. Hubert won by a point.

The heavyweight bout was between All Saints Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 from Rutherglen, Victoria, in the Business corner and Wynn's Coonawarra Estate Michael Shiraz 1997 representing First Class. All Saints had a cedary, medicinal nose with a cassis taste, lean and sinewy on the palate with good acidity. The more weighty Wynn's Cab was deep purple in colour with a caramel note in the vanilla of the oak and a sweet blackberry taste finishing minty and tannic. The soft fruit was showing too much oak and needs time. This bout ended in a draw.

So I finish with a Para Port from Barossa that was First Class in every sense, a delicious nightcap of sweet mulberries, chocolate and soft tannins.




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