British Airways Brings All-English Sparkling Wine To 30,000 Feet

Food & Drink

British Airways is adding some sparkle into their first class experience with the introduction of a new rotation of all-British bubbles — bright, tight, expressive sparkling wines grown in English soil.

Passengers in Club class (the airline’s first class equivalent) can board, settle into their seats and sip a rotation of five British sparkling wines from five different houses— Digby Fine English, Wiston Estate, Simpsons, Hattingley, and Balfour — alongside Champagne brands like Heidsieck & Co Monopole Silver Top Non-Vintage Champagne.

Each of the five bottles was selected by Master of Wine Tim Jackson, British Airways’ full-time sommelier. When picking wines, Jackson doesn’t taste through options in an idyllic vineyard. He boards a plane, pulls down the tray table, and moves through samples to understand each sip the way a passenger would.

Why in flight? Elevation impacts the way you experience wine. It shifts your reception to the fruit, dampens the palate, sharpens the acids, and dissipates the aromas more quickly.

His final choices: five bottles from five wineries, spanning Sussex, Kent, and Hampshire, that all shine at high altitude.

The program kicked off with Digby Fine English Brut NV, from the Sussex-based winery that earned its name from Sir Kenelm Digby, the British privateer responsible for designing and refining the modern Champagne bottle. The wine is full of ripe orchard fruit and spring rain salinity.

Hampshire-based Balfour’s Rosé de Noirs is a British Airways exclusive —a light sparkling made from red grapes and available only in Club World. Jackson weighed in on the dosage trials, ensuring the sweetness added to the final wine would work well at a variety of altitudes. The team opted for a higher dosage — the sweetness tends to enhance the fruit at 35,000 feet.

Hattingley Valley Blanc de Noir 2018 was also blended specifically for British Airways and crafted to shine in the skies. “Wines behave differently at 30,000 feet, so we use more red fruits in prominences and have a higher residual sugar,” explains Jackson. “It’s brut, but we want something that’s fuller and richer in body when consumed at that altitude.”

From Kent, Simpsons Chalklands Classic Cuvee NV is pale gold, with soft notes of apple and tight, persistant bubbles. Wiston Estate Brut in Sussex is bright and refreshing acidity, brought to life via ancient practices, like hand picking grapes from their over-200-year-old estate and pressing grapes on a historic wooden basket press.

This isn’t the first time British Airways has bet big on elevated beverages. In 2022, the airline hired Jackson as its full-time master of wine to help refine the alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks on-ground and in-flight.

Later this year, the Club World cabins will be visiting Portugal via the wine glass through a new program. In lounges, passengers can sip at bars dedicated to single producers, like London’s Whispering Angel bar.

It also isn’t the first time British Airways—Great Britain’s national carrier—has leaned into local wine. The airline has been serving homegrown bubbles for almost a decade but the new program aligns with a pivotal time in British wines.

“Our ability to do this is a reflection of where British sparkling wine is,” says Jackson. “We’ve been serving British wine for ten years but the volumes we need to serve it in business class is substantial. We can meet those demands now.”

Over the last five years English sparkling has bloomed, gathering international attention for its potential to be some of the world’s most exciting wines.

“2018 was a watershed year for British bubbles,” says Jackson. “It was a great vintage; sunny days through the growing seasons, a small amount of rainfall but an overall wonderful weather straight through to harvest. It allows producers to go forward into the market with a strong vintage.”

You can’t purchase any of the bottles on board, nor can you buy many of them in store — often they’re exclusive to British Airway. But one sip starts a conversation with passengers; introducing the burgeoning British region to local drinkers and flyers from further afield. Perhaps on their next trip into London, they’ll take a detour.

English wine country is a bucolic area to visit; a short drive south of London and dotted with small but stellar producers. British wine production has more than doubled over the past five years – growing 130% to 12.2 million bottles last year. According to WineGB, visitors to vineyards rose by 17% within the United Kingdom in 2022.

Global winemakers are catching on. Champagne Taittinger started making French-style bubbles in Kent in 2015. Pommery has land in Hampshire. Henkell Freixenet acquired the Bolney wine estate in Sussex in 2022.

What’s the draw? A stark white streak of chalk soil runs from the North Downs and the Cliffs of Dover down through Sussex and into Champagne. This chalk-heavy soil is renowned for priming Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier to make distinct, excellent bubbles in Champagne. Now — and partially at the hand of warming climates — England’s terroir is increasingly reflective of the finest French regions.

“In 10, 20 years the wines of England will look like Chablis, and the reds will look like Burgundy,” predicts Charles Simpson, owner of Simpsons.

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