Traveling the world in search of great wine means I spend half my life on planes, or maybe more, which is way too much time to go without wine. Life is too short, so whenever I fly I always have a keen eye on the wine offering unless I’m on a quick domestic run where it’s strictly water.
On longer-haul flights I’ll enjoy a glass or two of wine with the meal if the offering is up to scratch. When I do, my choices are guided by a very different set of criteria to when I am on the ground. Let me explain.
The plane cabin environment is very different to that of your local wine bar, favourite restaurant or dinner table, and the same wine can seemingly taste very different in the air to on the ground. The drier air and lower air pressure in a plane cabin make wine aromas and flavours harder to detect. It’s not a deal breaker, but wines often taste simpler in the air.
Airlines serve young wines almost exclusively on board their aircraft, and temperature is a huge factor influencing the way a young wine tastes. Varied serving temperatures will accentuate different characters of a wine, and managing wine temperature in a plane is much harder than on the ground.
Champagnes and sparkling wines are sometimes not quite cold enough when served on the plane, making them seem flat or broad.
Reds, conversely, are often served a bit too cold, which makes them seem a bit short on flavour and all closed up on the nose. Reds are easily warmed up by holding the glass in your hand for a spell – the smaller glasses actually speed this up. 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 can really enhance the in-flight experience, so selecting and serving good wine is an important consideration for most airlines.
But tighter profit margins in the air has seen most airlines wield the red pen in the wine cellar and cut as much of the spend as they can get away with. The exception is first class, where airlines really turn it on.
First and foremost
On the very, very rare occasion I travel in first class, I find the Champagne offering is hard to go past. Expect prestige cuvée Champagne such as Dom Perignon or Krug Grande Cuvée and just stick to these. Nothing else will come close.
A downward trend in the price point and grade of wines served in business class cabins has been countered with a steady increase in global wine quality. Most international and domestic business class wine offerings feature the entry or mid-tier wines of larger, well-known brands these days. Sadly, smaller, boutique wineries are seldom seen.
Only the larger producers have the scale to carry the discounted prices to be on board, and they’re also consistently putting well-made, good value and drinkable wines into the cabin. In fact, the plane I am sitting on as I write this is pouring a Voyager Estate Girt By Sea red blend and Cape Mentelle Sauvignon Blanc Semillon. Perfectly decent on both counts.
What to choose, and avoid
Other than in first class, the Champagnes served in-flight are generally from the mid-to-larger sized houses and styles that deliver punchy, flavourful impact. They’re fit for the job and robust enough to handle the cabin conditions; and hey, it’s just fun to raise a glass of bubbles before take-off.
Ditto 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.
In the white department, I go for wines that have plenty of vibrant fruit like a punchy young riesling, a fruity sauvignon blanc, lemony semillon or fresh semillon-sauvignon blanc blends. The Cape Mentelle white I’m being served is a great option.
These styles have such irrepressible fruit that they still taste great in the air. I steer away from more textural and oak-aged whites, as these wines can be bent out of shape on a plane. Hot tip: drink those styles 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.
Bordeaux is a rich hunting ground for the airlines and the quality of wine there, particularly in the recent 2015 and 2016 vintages, means these are a go-to for me. They offer plenty of flavour, oak is dialled down gently, and there’s not too much chew on the palate.
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 vibrantly fruity pinot that goes well on a plane. You’re looking for freshness and lip-smacking red fruit here, and I’ll definitely drink these if they’re on offer.
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.
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 and drink as much water as you can handle. You’ll thank me when you arrive.