Wine matters in premium cabins, mostly in my opinion for branding reasons. Qantas is the third largest buyer of Australian wine. Emirates is said to have spent $500 million acquiring wine for its flights.
Now, that’s a multi-year purchase. And it probably involves lots of rounding. Clearly the goal was to get to the $500 million number in order to promote it.
There’s a halo effect that they’re going for with big investments in their first class especially. By making it so over-the-top that it’s discussed with awe in social media they get a real brand awareness and a perception of a quality product that even permeates their coach experience — often exceedingly reality by a wide margin.
Wine Choice for Airline Premium Cabins is Tricky
Wine certainly can taste very different in the air than on the ground. Champagne often works well onboard, and I tend to favor it over even better old world wines. (Plus drinking champagne helps prevent dementia and alzheimer’s.)
Most people don’t know very much about wine (I suspect that the average premium cabin customer is like my seatmate who brought her own wine in a coffee cup onboard), though they think of it as a luxury good. Delta’s wine program recognizes this specifically avoiding bottles that are priced too inexpensively at retail (lest people think they’re low quality, regardless of taste) and that have too unsophisticated a label.
American has improved its wine program somewhat, and invests more on their Los Angeles – Sydney and two Hong Kong flights than other routes. They served Penfolds Grange in first class on the Sydney inaugural but then moved to d’Arenberg The Dead Arm Shiraz as their initial first class Shiraz. They served Etude Pinot Noir when the Sydney route launched as well, which is a great selection, one I’m happy drinking any time. For American’s limited wine budget it’s a reasonable choice for First (and would be an excellent choice in business for top world carriers).
American’s approach overall is 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 capability (they have to buy in significant volume and locate bottles around the system)
Whatever you choose, it won’t be worse than bottles that are promoted by your favorite frequent flyer program, bribing you with miles to accept bad wines on a monthly basis.
There are many very high quality wines at a low price point. I’d probably focus on Spanish Tempranillo and Cava myself if I were buying for a US airline. But it’s also very difficult to find inexpensive wines that are good and will appeal to the vast majority of tastes and that can also be a signal of quality as much as actual quality to consumers unfamiliar with wine while standing up to cabin pressure and dry air inflight.
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.
What Works Best in the Air
At pressure and in dry air you’re going to feel parched. Your taste is affected.
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, following what’s actually sound logic from American’s wine consultant Ken Chase.
I find that champagne in the air comes closest to offering the same experience as on the ground.
Singapore Airlines is the only carrier that serves both Dom Perignon and Krug onboard. There’s this moment when a Singapore flight attendant asks you if you’d care for champagne, you say yes, and they respond, “would you prefer Dom Perignon or Krug?” with a certain confident smirk. While tastes vary, and many will prefer Krug regardless, I believe the only proper answer to this question is, “What year is the Dom?” Either way, it’s a good bet to focus on champagne.