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We learn the secrets behind becoming a ‘Sommelier of the Sky’ from Singapore Airline’s Chief Steward, Wong Chek Leng, who has been an Air Sommelier since 2009.

We’re dying to know how one becomes a sommelier of the sky, what can you tell us?

Our Air Sommeliers go through a rigorous nine-month training programme during which they learn about advanced tasting techniques, wine marketing and food pairing among other wine-related topics. They must also complete the UK Wine and Spirit Education Trust Level 3 Award in Wines, which provides a detailed understanding of grape varieties, grape growing and winemaking.

When and where did you first discover your love of wine?

I signed up for one of the wine courses offered by Singapore Airlines and before I knew it, I was hooked! The instructor, who is one of our own cabin crew, had brought a bottle of a rare Hungarian sweet wine called Tokaji from his own cellar. It was the first dessert wine I had ever tasted and I was blown away by the incredible mix of liquid honey and apricot flavours.

What does the role of air sommelier involve?

We assist customers with wine recommendations and food and wine pairing on board flights. We see that customers are becoming increasingly interested in wine and some are even keen to know what goes into our sourcing strategy and how we decide what wines go on which routes. Some of us also play dual roles as wine and spirits trainers for the rest of the cabin crew.

What attracted you more to being an air sommelier instead of a, I guess, on-ground sommelier in a restaurant?

I guess the biggest advantage is that we get more opportunities to visit the winemakers on their home ground as we travel a lot more. Exploring the vineyards, seeing how the winery works and speaking to the people who have dedicated their lives to wine really gives a better sense of the story behind each bottle.

Wine consultant member Jeannie Cho Lee conducting a taste test in Champagne

What do you have to consider when choosing wines at altitude that you wouldn’t have to think about on the ground?

The wines are chosen by our three wine consultants – Michael Hill-Smith MW, Jeannie Cho Lee MW and Oz Clarke, who have an immense understanding of the wine world and have been working with Singapore Airlines for many years (since 1989). As they taste the thousand or so samples that are submitted to us, they look for wines that show good balance and fruitiness right out of the bottle, as we do not have the space for decanting during a flight. There is also the issue of predicting how the wines will taste in a few months’ time, to account for the time lag between the wine selection and when they will be eventually served on a flight.

So do our tastebuds change at altitude?

The dry air in the cabin has the effect of drying out our tastebuds, making us more sensitive to bitterness, tannin and acidity. With newer aircraft though, this has become less of an issue because the cabins are pressurised to lower altitudes which closer simulate ground conditions.

How do you think Singapore Airlines’ offering and level of service differs to other airlines?

We now go directly to winemakers in places such as Burgundy where allocations are tight and nearly impossible to attain in large volumes. This allows us to source for wines from top producers and be the only airline that will serve some of these labels. We’re also looking at what is trending in the wine world such as grower Champagnes.

In terms of in-flight service, we provide extensive wine training at every step of a cabin crew’s career. For example, we have different wine and spirits modules as our cabin crew progress through the ranks. Our in-house Wine Appreciation Group numbers over a thousand members and we regularly engage not just winemakers but even saké brewers and spirit makers.

Finally, as a passenger, what is your perfect in-flight food and wine pairing on a long journey?

You can’t go wrong with a glass of fine champagne, and I would pair it with one of our most popular Book the Cook dishes, lobster thermidor. It is the ultimate indulgence as you relax 35,000 feet in the air on your way to an exotic destination!

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