Which Airlines Serve The Best Wine, In The Air And On The Ground?
Air France does a nice job generally selecting its business class wines. Their customers expect it. But budgets are still constrained in business class, both in the air and on the ground.
So I was shocked when a reader spotted a single bottle of 2011 Chateau Branaire Ducru St. Julien in their Paris Charles de Gaulle Terminal 2E Hall M business lounge. Wow. It turned out to be the last or only bottle they had, and he finished it off for them.
Just saw a customer in the flagship AF lounge at CDG take a spoon in a communal salad dressing, taste the dressing and put the spoon back in the dressing.
…And then Air France just casually dumps one bottle of this at the lounge. Only one bottle.
A proper Grand Cru in a business lounge seems like a mistake, or maybe leftovers from the prior day’s allotment in the La Premiere lounge?
Who Serves The Best Wine, And Whose Program Is Worst?
Qantas served Penfolds Grange in their Sydney and Melbourne first class lounges for the holidays, restricted to Airbus A380 first class as well as Platinum One and Chairmans Club members. That’s the best wine I’ve ever known to be served in a lounge, with the lucky passengers being served the 1997 and 2007 vintages.
The best wine I’ve ever had in a business lounge was in Air Canada’s Vancouver Signature Suite in 2022 where they were serving an Italian Petite Verdot (2012 Domodimonti Passione e Visione) that had been laying down for 3 years because of the pandemic so it was perfectly paired with the tomahawk steak. Usually business class wines are all about scale, what the airline can source at a high volume, consumed (too) quickly.
Meanwhile, for the next several months American Airlines has even dropped wine lists from their business class cabins inviting customers “to engage with…flight attendants to learn more about the selection of wines available for your enjoyment.” Flying to and from Sydney in first class last summer they didn’t even have an Australian wine on board either flight and their Chardonnay was an $8 bottle.
In general my favorite wine programs are Singapore’s (very thoughtful and route-specific selections), Emirates (luxury investment), and Qantas (for a good Shiraz). A lot of airlines serve prestige champagnes, but I’ve never seen anyone but Emirates serve Chateau d’Yquem.
In business class, surely Qatar Airways is tops back at the inflight bar on their A380? (With EVA Air giving them a run for their money at times.)
Most Passengers Don’t Know The Difference
I have to remind myself at times that much of the wine that’s being served is being served to Cort McCown’s character Quint in 1987’s Can’t Buy Me Love trying to impress a girl with his wine knowledge.
Quint: I’ve learned to appreciate the finer things in life. I even travel with my own wine. You never know the quality you may encounter at a soiree.
Fran: [smells the wine and coughs] Very classy.
Quint: [takes a swig out of the wine bottle] Mm-hmm. I’m into class. It’s my new thing.
Even though most people don’t know very much about wine they think of it as a luxury good. Delta years ago made a point of avoiding bottles that are priced too inexpensively at retail (lest people think they’re low quality, regardless of taste) and that had too unsophisticated a label. That no longer seems to be the strategy at all, since I’ve seen them serving $5 bottles.
Wine Tastes Different In The Air
Back when Ken Chase was selecting wines for American his approach was 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 they have to buy in significant volume and locate bottles around the system
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. Dry cabin air, pressurized to 6,000 or 8,000 feet, you’re going to feel parched.
What Works Best At Altitude
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. I find that champagne in the air comes closest to offering the same experience as on the ground.