How to Enjoy Wine on Your Next Flight

Wine matters in premium cabins, mostly in my opinion for branding reasons. Qantas is the third largest buyer of Australian wine. Emirates is said to have spent $500 million acquiring wine for its flights.

Now, that’s a multi-year purchase. And it probably involves lots of rounding. Clearly the goal was to get to the $500 million number in order to promote it.

There’s a halo effect that they’re going for with big investments in their first class especially. By making it so over-the-top that it’s discussed with awe in social media they get a real brand awareness and a perception of a quality product that even permeates their coach experience — often exceedingly reality by a wide margin.

Wine Choice for Airline Premium Cabins is Tricky

Wine certainly can taste very different in the air than on the ground. Champagne often works well onboard, and I tend to favor it over even better old world wines. (Plus drinking champagne helps prevent dementia and alzheimer’s.)

Most people don’t know very much about wine (I suspect that the average premium cabin customer is like my seatmate who brought her own wine in a coffee cup onboard), though they think of it as a luxury good. Delta’s wine program recognizes this specifically avoiding bottles that are priced too inexpensively at retail (lest people think they’re low quality, regardless of taste) and that have too unsophisticated a label.

American has improved its wine program somewhat, and invests more on their Los Angeles – Sydney and two Hong Kong flights than other routes. They served Penfolds Grange in first class on the Sydney inaugural but then moved to d’Arenberg The Dead Arm Shiraz as their initial first class Shiraz. They served Etude Pinot Noir when the Sydney route launched as well, which is a great selection, one I’m happy drinking any time. For American’s limited wine budget it’s a reasonable choice for First (and would be an excellent choice in business for top world carriers).

American’s approach overall is to select ‘fruit bombs’ — very fruit forward wines that will maintain their character in the air. Many subtle wines, great wines, simply don’t taste special in the air and aren’t worth the cost.

Even the most knowledgeable sommeliers are constrained by:

  • The airline’s budget

  • Sourcing and distribution capability (they have to buy in significant volume and locate bottles around the system)

Whatever you choose, it won’t be worse than bottles that are promoted by your favorite frequent flyer program, bribing you with miles to accept bad wines on a monthly basis.

There are many very high quality wines at a low price point. I’d probably focus on Spanish Tempranillo and Cava myself if I were buying for a US airline. But it’s also very difficult to find inexpensive wines that are good and will appeal to the vast majority of tastes and that can also be a signal of quality as much as actual quality to consumers unfamiliar with wine while standing up to cabin pressure and dry air inflight.

Singapore has a unique approach. They have a pressurized tasting room. Normally taste tests of wine and picking what people like doesn’t help, since it doesn’t match how those wines will taste in the air. Singapore has designed the conditions on the ground to be able to taste things closer to actual flight conditions.

What Works Best in the Air

At pressure and in dry air you’re going to feel parched. Your taste is affected.

I’m often served red wines too cold, which mitigates their fruit and highlights their acidity. If you are served red cold (a little chill is usually fine and even desirable) wait to drink it or cup the glass in your hands to warm.

Fruit forward Pinots work well, following what’s actually sound logic from American’s wine consultant Ken Chase.

I find that champagne in the air comes closest to offering the same experience as on the ground.

Singapore Airlines is the only carrier that serves both Dom Perignon and Krug onboard. There’s this moment when a Singapore flight attendant asks you if you’d care for champagne, you say yes, and they respond, “would you prefer Dom Perignon or Krug?” with a certain confident smirk. While tastes vary, and many will prefer Krug regardless, I believe the only proper answer to this question is, “What year is the Dom?” Either way, it’s a good bet to focus on champagne.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Tastes differ so much. I never enjoy Champagne in the air, but do enjoy it as a Pre-Departure drink. And I dislike fruit bomb wines, preferring rich wines in the air and I seem particularly sensitive to the slightly metallic taste that so many New World wines exhibit. But I do agree that a Tempranillo is a good choice but, for reds, I would always go for a young but rich Bordeaux and avoid the New World offerings completely.

  2. id love me some kosher wine! ….. only EL AL .. why can’t other airlines provide any ..

  3. If you did a blind test of 3 or 4 wines, could you identify in order the prices?

    That is you won’t even be which labels they are, you would just see the stuff poured out of covered up bottles.

  4. @Gary —> After 40 years in the wine trade, I can’t tell you how delighted I am with your post. It’s better written than the articles on the topic I’ve read from wine writers on both sides of the Atlantic.


    @kosherjondoe —> It will never happen. If for no other reason than space/weight, Kosher wines will continue to be found only on El Al.


    @wco —> No. No one can. Since price is not tied to quality in any way, “In Order of Price” is USELESS metric and impossible to achieve. (Q: What makes Cache Phloe Vineyards Napa Valley Chardonnay worth $40 and Jean Deaux Vineyards Napa Valley Chardonnay worth $75? A: Ego.)

  5. There may be exceptions but in general, the better-received wines command higher prices.

    Some people might say they think wine B is higher quality than wine A or C, even though wine C had higher rating from WS and other reviewers.

    And that would be fine, something like taste of wine is more subjective than something like how fast a car accelerates, since the the latter can be measured and repeated.

  6. Interesting post Gary and thank you. But please be responsible with quoting medical studies as facts. That’s simply one study that suddenly went viral in 2015/16 that was actually conducted in 2013. And its a TINY study. Was conducted on 3 groups of rats with 8 rats in each group, comparing champagne/non champagne alcoholic drink/non alcoholic drink on their ability to find treats in a maze. They had the drinks for 6 weeks only. The champagne groups found the treats 5 times out of 8 on average… whilst the other groups found em 8 on average.

    This is a tiny study, most likely performed to garner more funding for a bigger study. It can hardly qualify as actual evidence that chapagne reduces dementia!!! Theres not even ANY evidence on humans yet.

  7. “Better received” does not mean higher quality. You are quite right: “something like taste of wine is more subjective than something like how fast a car accelerates.” I have found dozens of truly GREAT wines for — relatively — not very much money, simply because they get a mediocre review from Parker (or the Speculator). This is due to the fact that I don’t have Robert Parker’s taste buds in my mouth; I have my own. And I prefer certain styles of wines that Parker does not, and vice-versa. Therefore, I can use his ratings — but ONLY alone with his very consistent tasting notes — to find wines that I will LOVE, even if he didn’t (and his throngs of Loyal Lemmings won’t dare to try) . . . .

    As I mentioned above, I spent 40 years in the wine trade (working for wineries in both production and in sales; as a retailer and as an importer) — including over 20 as a professional wine writer, educator, and wine judge. EVERYONE’S palate is different, and while there is general agreement among professionals that Château X is a fine wine, exactly how fine, how excellent, and estimates of when it will be fully mature can vary widely . . .

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