Whether you fly in business or economy, wine options on flights come down typically to “red or white.” And if you’re a wine-loving frequent flier, you know that airlines face unique challenges that can explain why bottles on a plane so often disappoint.
Selecting wines for an airline program is a monumental task, and each carrier employs a different methodology. For Singapore Air, Jeannie Cho Lee MW, author Oz Clarke and Michael Hill Smith a wine consultant, wine judge and writer, blind-taste 1,000 wines over the course of a year. Doug Frost MW and MS, who works for United, tastes more than 2,000 wines over a month before he winnows down 150 picks for final consideration.
But wines aren’t selected on taste alone. Most programs adhere to strict volume and budget constraints. Airline buyers need suppliers that can provide enough quantity at the right level of quality. The wines must suit the broad preferences of travelers and be commensurate with ticket price.
“The biggest challenge is finding what we want when buying in large volumes,” says Frost. “Wine is an agricultural product, so buying in volume does you no good.”
Logistical issues constrain inflight lists. Air New Zealand only serves its country’s wines, so the carrier must factor in the costs to offer those labels around the world.
Wine writer Jon Bonné, who runs JetBlue’s Mint program, says the airline has fine-tuned their logistics along the way. JetBlue is currently “ordering wine in quantities that match what we actually pour,” says Bonné.
“Our physical condition changes during flights: Red wines taste more tannic, and white wines more acidic.” –Jeannie Cho Lee MW, wine consultant, Singapore Air
Wine selections also hinge on concerns like serving at the proper temperature in appropriate glassware, or the inability to decant. According to Lee, palates experience wine differently at altitude.
“Our physical condition changes during flights: Red wines taste more tannic, and white wines more acidic,” she says. “Thus, we opt for wines that lean towards clear flavors and fruit definition.”
Carriers like Qantas set themselves apart with strong training programs. The Australian airline offers introductory, intermediate and advanced wine courses to staff that culminate with a Sommelier in the Sky designation. The airline posts cheat sheets in galleys with wine overviews and meal pairings.
The following 10 airlines have proven that flying from Point A to B can also provide delicious midflight pleasure.
In September, the French airline earned “Best Airline Wine List in the World” by British publication The World of Fine Wine. The program’s success relies on a partnership with Paolo Basso, voted world’s best sommelier in 2013 by the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale. Combined with access to its home country’s fabulous vineyards, Air France dedicates itself to great domestic wine across all classes, a commitment that includes free Champagne in long-haul Economy.
Air New Zealand
Air New Zealand only serves its country’s wines, and in 2017, the airline poured nearly eight million glasses. Villa Maria supplies different labels for the airline’s lounges, Economy and Premium Economy cabins. In Business Premier, the airline profiles a selection that rotates every two months with offerings from the annual Fine Wines of New Zealand list.
All Nippon Airways
Since September, ANA has served custom red and white wine blends created with wine consultant Ned Goodwin MW. The Japanese carrier has also added 54 wines and two sakes to its lounges and onboard menus. Passengers traveling in Premium Economy class on domestic routes receive complimentary Champagne, while Krug, Château Léoville and Vasse Felix pop up on international First Class routes.
With an investment upwards of $700 million on beverage programs across all cabins, Emirates takes wine seriously. The carrier stores seven million bottles in a temperature-controlled warehouse in Burgundy. The airline has six wine lists, one for each region they operate in, with some 70 wines offered across the network. Expect mainstays Dom Pérignon and Château d’Yquem to make appearances. The airline also factored in bigger glasses and decanters into its cabin design.
A small airline with big ambition, Finnair exceeds the competition with a dedicated wine menu replete with brand bios. Finnair offers California Chardonnay, German Pinot Noir, Margaux, Port and several more global selections. Bonus: You can sip Champagne from iconic Iittala glasses evocative of melting ice in Lapland.
With Bonné at the helm, Mint’s wine program is America’s most offbeat and exciting. Picks reflect Mint’s mandate for high-quality products. JetBlue was the first U.S. carrier to serve rosé, and Bonné has scored allocations from California producers like Matthiasson, Failla, Sandhi and Lioco. He’s expanded domestic selections to include Oregon and Washington, and international bottles ranging from grower Champagne to German Riesling.
The German carrier works with Markus Del Monego MW to offer interesting business and first class picks, though economy passengers sip on Riesling, too. Naturally, the roster highlights Germany, as Monego and a panel vet wines via a 20-point, blind-tasting system. The group lands on wines typically with lower perceived acidity and tannins, and higher residual sweetness due to changes in customers’ inflight palates.
Qantas is Australia’s third-largest buyer of Aussie wine, and its focus is to show off the country’s best regions. Selections range from Margaret River and Yarra Valley to Tasmania and Barossa Valley. Typically, Business Class pours four selections that are route dependent and rotate throughout the year. First Class passengers enjoy pre-selected pairings with each course at meal service. Flight attendants can also pour a tasting flight on request.
Among the first carriers to have a dedicated wine panel, the airline has won many awards for its efforts. At the First Class/Suites levels, it pours iconic wines like Dom Pérignon, grand cru Burgundy, and cru classé Bordeaux. In Business Class, there’s a selection of high-quality, trendy or emerging icons from around the world. And Economy is about value-driven fruity whites and reds.
The airline’s Upper Class program is overseen by Mark Pardoe MW, the wine director of noted UK firm Berry Bros. & Rudd. A panel convenes four times per year to select its top wines for Upper Class, while it meets annually for Premium and Economy Delight, Classic and Light. With the help of science, Pardoe expanded selections and threw old rules out the window. For example, better humidity and cabin-pressurization systems found on the Dreamliner 787 mean that higher-acid wines taste more balanced midflight.