How to enjoy wine during your flight (not just drink it)

Altitude does weird things to wine, and picking a great in-flight sip isn’t always straightforward. We're here to help.

By Staff Writers, February 14 2024
How to enjoy wine during your flight (not just drink it)

Travelling the world means spending a lot of time on planes. This can be a very good thing for wine lovers, in particular, as it presents an opportunity to sample some of the world’s most exclusive drops at 40,000 feet, rather than only going direct to the source.

One downside of mile high tastings though is the cabin environment is very different to that of your local wine bar, preferred restaurant or dinner table, and the same wine can seemingly taste vastly different on the ground to what it does in the sky.

As is widely known, the drier air and lower air pressure in a plane cabin makes wine aromas and flavours harder to detect. While certainly not a deal breaker, wines often taste simpler in the air.

Etihad's A380 Apartment is making an imminent return to the sky.
Etihad's A380 Apartment is making an imminent return to the sky.

Climate control

Airlines tend to serve young wines almost exclusively on board their aircraft, and temperature is a big factor influencing the way these wines taste, as varied climate conditions can accentuate different characteristics of wine. It’s much harder to control this in the sky too.

Champagnes and sparkling wines are sometimes served not quite cold enough on planes, making them seem flat or broad.

Conversely, reds tend to be a bit cold, which makes them seem a bit short on flavour and all closed up on the nose. The good thing is these are easily warmed up simply by holding the glass in your hand for a spell – the smaller the glass, the better.

Although reds can be served a little cold, they're easily warmed up – the reverse doesn't apply to Champagne.
Although reds can be served a little cold, they're easily warmed up – the reverse doesn't apply to Champagne.

The only thing that can fix warm Champagne is a press of the call button.

With such fierce competition between airlines, a great wine offering really enhances the in-flight experience, so selecting and serving good wine is an important consideration for most airlines.

But tighter profit margins most-pandemic have seen many airlines wield the red pen in the wine cellar, cutting as much of the spend as they can get away with. The exception is first class, where airlines still manage to turn it on when it counts.

First and foremost

For those reclining in first class comfort, a quality Champagne is hard to resist. Expect prestige drops such as Dom Perignon or Krug Grande Cuvée and just stick to these. Nothing else will compare.

The downward trend in the price point and grade of wines served in business class cabins has been countered by a steady increase in global wine quality.

First class is the domain of the prestige cuvée.
First class is the domain of the prestige cuvée.

Most international and domestic business class wine lists these days feature entry or mid-tier wines of larger, well-known brands. Sadly, smaller boutique wineries are seldom seen, as only the bigger producers have the scale to manage the discounted prices to be on board. 

What to choose, and avoid

Other than in first class, the bubbles served in-flight are generally from the mid-to-larger sized houses and of styles delivering punchy, flavourful impact. They’re fit for the job and robust enough to handle cabin conditions; and hey, it’s just fun to raise a glass before take-off.

Ditto for sparkling wines, with airlines tending to favour the consistent producers and selecting a bold style with plenty of flavour. These are generally all good options.

Business class may have less premium wines, but there are still plenty of quality drops to be found.
Business class may have less premium wines, but there are still plenty of quality drops to be found.

In the white department, it’s a good idea to go for wines packing plenty of vibrant fruit, like a punchy young riesling, a fruity sauvignon blanc, lemony semillon or fresh semillon-sauvignon blanc blends. These styles have such irrepressible fruit that they still taste great in the air.

Generally, it’s best to steer clear from your more textural or oak-aged whites, as these wines can be seriously bent out of shape on a plane. Hot tip: leave those styles for drinking in the lounge.

Reds are more complex, and the oak and tannin of full-bodied young red wines can be dialled up by the cabin to a level that makes these styles a bit unapproachable.

Be bold

The finer elements of lighter reds, such as pinot noir, can get a bit lost in the cabin, but there are certainly plenty of places making bold, bright and vibrant fruity pinot that goes well on a plane. You’re looking for freshness and lip-smacking red fruit here, and these are worth seeking out.

Also look to young Cotes-du-Rhone reds and grenache-based blends from places such as Australia, Spain and France. These carry plenty of flavour and are such great all-rounders when it comes to food. They really are ideal in the sky.

Reds can be complex to enjoy inflight, although a Bordeaux is well-suited to sipping above the clouds.
Reds can be complex to enjoy inflight, although a Bordeaux is well-suited to sipping above the clouds.

Sweet wines and fortified wines are great on a plane, as they are so robust and the quality level is generally a step above the whites and reds, because the volumes being sold are much lower. You’ll often find a surprisingly good glass of port or muscat; but indulge sparingly, as these are much higher in alcohol content than table wines and fizz.

All that aside, why not have a glass from wherever you’re headed? Many carriers feature wine from the destination country of the flight and, of course, their home territory. Try these and get the feel for what lies ahead, or have a final taste of what you’re leaving behind.

And of course, don’t overindulge in wine (or cocktails, for that matter) and drink as much water as you can handle. You’ll thank yourself when you arrive.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

20 Aug 2014

Total posts 157

Great Article. Thanks ET team.

04 Dec 2017

Total posts 69

Qantas has one hell of an obsession with wine. Along with shareholder profit this would have to be their second priority.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

08 Jul 2014

Total posts 58

They are certainly obsessed with trying to sell you wine through incessant emails and phone calls. It would be nice if this obsession extended to serving excellent examples of Australian wine onboard - recent offerings (in international J and F at least) have been decidedly lacklustre.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer P1

23 Aug 2014

Total posts 139

The next step would be to take the guts of this solid article and apply it to actual First and Business class wine lists  of individual airlines, including the pricing and appropriateness of the wines served in relation to the price point of the airfare. 

It is time for reviewers to hold airlines accountable for their spin much much more and compare airlines to each more so that readers can then make an informed choice, rather than the safe neutral ground treaded for other reasons.

I have flown 11 F segments long haul post pandemic and our national carrier has slashed the quality of wine served on board in F and J without altering their hyperbole (in all flights some of the wines were not even available or had been altered-I have copies of these lists) and charging airfares never seen before (25K F Syd-Lax-Syd with AUD 40 Pinot compared to three times the price spent on better wine before - I have these lists too). 

The pattern continues despite the widely bought but factually incorrect sales pitch of a "new" F and J menu on QF and wine service (all that has happened is that Qantas is attempting to revert to pre pandemic levels with the false spin of "new" and still serving cheaper pedestrian wines that need "clearing").

Other airlines haven't.

The wines and spirits of Emirates will never be rivalled because of their cellaring/ageing program. They serve Chateau Yquem (compare this to De Bortoli on Qantas for the price point of the airfare and the quality of the wine). This article correctly points out the damaging effects of the pressurised cabin and temperature control on the nose and palate - Emirates offers a Demi-carafe to decant your wine in F!

ANA serves Hibiki 21 and 17 on 2 routes each.

The wine lists on QR rival the F production many carriers.

JAL and Salon etc etc.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

24 Jan 2018

Total posts 711

Well . . . this is precisely why I drink Whisky at altitude in preference to wine.  Whether it be a single malt, blended or bourbon, altitude and air temperature won't get in the way.  

Honestly David, I think you should take those Staff Writers back up to 40,000 with a half-dozen different whiskies and supervise a lateral tasting session, staying airborne until they've filed decent tasting notes suitable for publication.  In time they will come appreciate that sort of leadership.  

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

21 Jul 2013

Total posts 57

Most airlines have great champagnes on first class but for mine Taittinger Comtes on Qantas is the pick of them. Exquisite wine. 

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