Oz Clarke on curating a wine list for Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines doesn’t do anything by halves. Every detail of its offering is the product of knowledge, research and expertise. We meet Oz Clarke — one of the three experts on the wine panel

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 8 Apr 2019, 23:40 BST
Oz Clarke
Oz Clarke
Photograph by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

What’s the biggest challenge in serving wine at 35,000ft?
The biggest challenge at altitude is the dryness of the air. It becomes much more difficult to taste things. Bitterness and acidity become much more evident and fruit and perfume get lost. This means the wines you choose must have a generous quality. They must have lots of fruit in them and they must be led by brightness and freshness.

What works best?
Sauvignon blanc. And a New Zealand sauvignon blanc is the most obvious example. It has a nice tingly acidity and an immediate burst of bright ‘orchardy’ fruit.

What else works well?
Champagne also works very well, of course, because of the bubbles. You need something that wakes you up instead of anything that calms you towards a soporific state. It may not be perfect with all food, but it’s often perfect with your general state of mind, which is just as important.

Modern chardonnays are also doing quite well because they’re less claggy and heavy than they used to be. Riesling is another great one. They always have a zingy bite and it’s that ‘zingy-ness’ that you need to just break through the drying atmosphere.

What challenges do you face?
Another question we have to consider is what will go with your meal. We have chefs from several different countries: America, Japan, Italy, Australia, India and more. So, when you typically sit down and look at your menu on the plane you might have five or six different cuisines so there’s no point in having a wine that won’t taste good with most things.

How does the panel work?
There’s three of us: Jeannie Cho Lee who’s based in Hong Kong and China, Michael Hill Smith who’s based in Australia and me in Europe. We have two chunks of time each year when we’re in Singapore doing blind evaluations. We have particular things we’re after. It might be business class red, economy class white. We might start with 100 wines at the beginning of the morning and we’ve got two or three by the time we’ve finished and then we put that to Singapore Airlines and say these are the ones we think are really going to work best.

What makes the panel work?
We all go to different parts of the wine world all through the year and we’re always looking out for what we think might work whether it’s a new Spanish wine or something from Chile. We keep in touch by email so there’s a continual evolution in what will work on the planes. And that makes sense because the planes and the food that we serve are changing so the wines gently change as well.

What’s the most unexpected thing you serve?
We’ve started using Tasmanian wines — the coolest place in Australia. People might find that a Tasmanian pinot noir is shocking and exciting — something they really hadn’t expected.

Does the job stop when you get on the plane?
Well, the first thing I want to do is have a glass of champagne. But then what I do is try all the wines from all the different classes and then I go into the galley and I chat to the crew. I want to hear what they think. They’ve been on the Hong Kong flight and they’ve been on the Los Angeles flight — what are people actually drinking? That kind of thing is important.

What’s your favourite part of flying Singapore Airlines?
I do really bound down that gangway with a certain amount of enthusiasm. I think that the thing about Singapore Airlines is that the planes are the most modern. The seats are the most comfortable. But above all, it’s that old Singapore value — the warm, personable friendly welcome that never fades. In a rushed digital world, I think that’s really important.


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