If you want great wine these days you don’t have to fly thousands of miles to get it, you can sip it en route. But getting wine to taste delicious at 30,000 feet isn’t easy.
If you’re flying somewhere anytime soon, you’ll find our chat about airline wines today uplifting. In this episode of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast, I’m going to cover which wines are best to drink when you’re in the air, how your sense of smell and taste change, and why airlines are paying more attention to their wine selections on board these days. Enjoy!
- What would my wine-centric dream flight look like?
- How can food and wine offer airlines a competitive advantage?
- Have in-flight wine lists evolved in recent years?
- How does altitude affect your palate?
- What types of considerations have to be made when airlines select the in-flight wines?
- What unique solutions have airlines developed to improve the in-flight wine experience?
- How do the major airlines choose their wine selections?
- Why would wineries want to be on airline wine lists?
- Grape Britain: British Airways Just Got A Little More British
- Delta Airlines wine selection
- United Airlines premium wines
- Finnair wine list
- My online wine and food pairing class
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Transcript & Takeaways
Welcome to episode 36!
If you’re flying somewhere this summer, or in the year to come, you’ll find our chat about airline wines today uplifting. I was tempted to call this episode Vertigo Tasting or wine that you can drink without reservations, but in the end Flights of Wine Fancy was punny enough.
I’m going to cover which wines are best to drink when you’re 30,000 feet in the air, how your sense of smell and taste change, and why airlines are paying more attention to their wine selections on board these days.
Before we dive in, I’d love your help in spreading the word about this podcast. Please post a review on Apple Podcasts, formerly iTunes, or social media. If you do that, let me know and I’ll give you a shout out on this podcast.
Plus, if you do, I’ll send a free copy of my Ultimate Food & Wine Pairing Guide. It’s a quick template covering the major food matches for red, white, rose and dessert wines. It’s visually very appealing and I know you’ll get tons of use from it. All you have to do is post a review on Apple Podcasts, formerly iTunes, or on social media. Then just email me at [email protected] and I’ll send it to you.
On with the show. Enjoy!
My dream flight begins with the wine selection: “We’d like to direct your attention to the wine list in the seat pocket in front of you. You’ll note we have a fine selection of first-growth Bordeaux at the rear of the plane (using the double-arm, two-finger signal), 40-year vintage port is being decanted in the middle aisles and, for our first-class passengers, a vertical of Chateau d’Yquem 1945 through 1960, at the front of the plane.
At any time during this flight, should you run out of wine, it is imperative that you help yourself before assisting other passengers. This will help reduce overall cabin pressure not to mention, the stress of your post-merger flight crew. We realize that you no longer have a choice of airlines, but drink up, and we’re sure that we’ll all forget about those terminal delays and lost luggage that can really annoy anyone sober.”
Perhaps my silver-winged sybaritic dream is a stretch, but airline wine is the one aspect of flying that’s no longer a potshot target. In fact, wine lists have improved, fueled by more savvy customers in a fiercely competitive worldwide industry.
Airlines often have the same equipment, routes, fares and frequent flyer programs, so food and wine are one of the few ways to express individuality. That’s why there are more premium brands on board including Starbucks coffee, Godiva chocolates, Ben & Jerry ice cream and meals created by celebrity chefs.
Indeed, British Airways’ research shows that the closer we get to flying, the more important food and wine become. When booking our ticket, it’s only the sixth most important factor. However, when we’re standing in line at the gate to board, it’s number two after the attitude of the flight crew.
But let’s not kid ourselves about anyone choosing an airline because of the wine as in … Ticket agent: “That’ll be $3,456 for the wine, plus we’ll throw in a return trip to California.” That said, we’re no longer happy to drink a $6 bottle that devours .001 percent of our fare.
Ten years ago, that wasn’t uncommon. Wine selection was based mostly on price, and often the same wine was served year after year, even in bad vintages. You could choose from one undrinkable French white wine or one undrinkable French red wine, stuff that Peter Nixson of British Airways calls “cheap and nasty.”
Most of us just want something pleasantly palatable to release the tension of running to the gate with a 30-pound shoulder bag and high heels, or to forget the big guy snoring next to us who has just rolled his head on to our shoulder.
Getting a wine to taste delicious at 30,000 feet isn’t easy though. After a few hours, we get dehydrated. Alcohol’s dehydrating effect compounds this, and we lose up to 30 percent of our ability to taste. Wine’s aromas are flattened, and any element that’s out of balance such as tannin or acidity is emphasized. The wine hasn’t changed, we have.
British Airways once invited several wine writers to blind taste a group of wines at the Heathrow airport, more wines while flying aboard the Concorde to Barbados and then another set of wines once in a hotel in Barbados, where the poor souls completed their gruelling day.
They unanimously judged the best wines were the ones in Barbados, followed by those at Heathrow and then those tasted while flying. Turns out, of course, the same wines were served in all three tastings.
Before the wine even gets on board, it must survive the labyrinthine logistics of thousands of flights and destinations. Ken Chase, who has consulted with Delta Airlines, admits to doing strange things with wine, such as heating, chilling and shaking it, to ensure that the wine can withstand the cooking on the tarmac in Mexico or being rickshawed through bumpy streets in Bangkok.
Will the wine still perform in your glass after it’s been rerouted through Iceland? Fortunately, most airlines have a network of temperature-controlled warehouses where they build the bar carts. British Airways, for example, has sixty bar-building stations around the world.
Then there are the impoverished tools of airline wine service: proper stemware and crystal decanters are out of the question given storage constraints and glass breakage, leaving us with those little plastic pill cups. Both British Airways and United Airlines are developing specially designed tasting glasses with shorter stems and better shape to concentrate the aromas.
To compensate for pressurized cabins, British Airways has also created its own blend of champagne that’s bottled at a lower pressure. But that still leaves cramped quarters and turbulence. (Would you like a little more claret on your shirt sir?)
The other part of wine service is the server. It’s reassuring to know that wine training is rather low on the priority list for flight crew given the situations they face. (Would you really want them distracting hijackers with overoaked chardonnays?)
However, most airlines squeeze in a few hours on wine training. Beyond that, they use in-flight wine guides with tasting notes, pronunciations and food matches.
British Airways further encourages staff to seek outside training by paying for wine courses. A thousand of their attendants who have passed a sommelier exam and wear a lapel pin indicating that they can answer passenger wine questions. The most rigorous training is Delta’s in-house Vinum Wine Academy: a seven-day course covering food and wine that runs from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Working with these constraints, airline wine buyers look for fat, fruit-forward wines from Australia, southern France, Chile and California, rather than delicate or old wines. Aside from being reasonably priced, these wines have to be available in massive quantities. United buys 400,000 cases annually while Air Canada purchases 60,000 cases (smaller airlines can shop from smaller, quality producers).
To make their final selections, some airlines feature the wines made in their home country while others offer route-specific choices so that passengers get a taste of the destination when they board the plane. Air Canada serves red and white kosher wines en route to Tel Aviv, saké when flying to Asian destinations.
United offers wines that passengers can find easily at home. Many airlines use an outside tasting panel to make the final choices. The enological literati advises British Airways: Hugh Johnson, Michael Broadbent and Jancis Robinson (who says in her memoir that after gushing about being invited to participate on such an august panel, she received the deflating explanation from the British Airways rep: “Well, we thought we needed a woman.”).
Robinson also writes that panel tasting has the smudging effect of eliminating distinctive wine given that someone in the group is likely not to like an extreme style. This drags wine choices into the “innocuous middle ground of communal assessment” to please everyone, which is ideal for airlines, but not for wine lovers who are better off following one critic they trust.
Of course, the most distinctive wine is served in business and first class. The crème de la crème used to be British Airways’ Concorde Cellar which consisted of mature, cru classé red Bordeaux, grand and premier cru red and white Burgundy and a cuvée champagne. The cellar held ten years’ selections for ageing. Benchmark wines filled the list such as Krug, Heidsieck, Pol Roger and Dom Pérignon, the latter of which the airline was the single largest buyer in the world.
The airline also featured the best of the New World such as Penfolds Grange, Opus One and Kistler. When the Concorde took its last flight in 2003, wine lovers around the world shed a few tears, well at least, the rich ones did.
To recognize excellence in airline wine lists, Business Traveler magazine sponsors an annual competition called Cellars in the Sky. When Finnair won, it was spending two-thirds of its wine budget on business class, which still only accounts for about 4% of a business class ticket. The airline stocks an average of 600 different labels in its cellars.
For wineries, getting on airline lists not only means revenues that don’t eat into ground sales, it’s also an international sampling program. Australian winemaker Wolf Bass recognized the promotion potential early on, and held wine tasting sessions with captive first-class audiences whenever he flew. He was also known to have himself paged frequently in airport lounges so that his name was top-of-mind with duty-free shoppers.
Even with these changes, we aren’t exactly in the Golden Age of airline wine. But we can expect to see the quality improve, with less conservative choices. British Airways, for example, is experimenting with organic wines, Alsatian rieslings, Romanian reds and Austrian pinot blancs.
The airlines also plan to package more information with their wines. This may mean watching a short video on the wines being served, perhaps an expert tasting session (which gives new meaning to flights of wine) or a travel piece on the region where the wines were produced.
This may also extend to interactive web-based sessions, where passengers can explore information on the wines as deeply as they desire. Delta already includes its wine list on its site, and in its wine guide, reviews several wine websites for “cybersipping”.
If you want great wine these days you don’t have to fly thousands of miles to get it, you can sip it en route. Now if they could just fix the stuff that can ruin a good glass pinot noir.
Did you know that you can now listen to this podcast on your smart speaker? Just say: “Hey Google” or for Amazon’s Echo, use her name that begins with A … I won’t say it now as it’ll set off your device and mine.
So I’ll say Madame A as in “Madam A — play the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast.” I’d love to chat about wine with you while you’re playing solitaire, waiting for your facial mask to dry or macraming a new lampshade … it’s always wine time.
You’ll find links to the airline wine lists I mentioned in the show notes at nataliemaclean.com/36 as well links to as my favourite wines to drink when I’m flying.
If you liked this episode, please tell a friend about it, especially one who’s interested in which wines to choose when flying. My podcast is easy to find, whether you search Google on its name Unreserved Wine Talk, or on my name.
Finally, if you want to take your ability to pair wine and food to the next level, join me in a free online video class at nataliemaclean.com/class.
I can’t wait to share more wine stories with you.
Thank you for taking the time to listen to this one. I hope something great is in your glass this week and whenever you fly!