The 10 Airlines With the Best Wine Programs — and Whether it Matters

Wine Enthusiast rated the top 10 airline wine programs. (HT: Michael W. Travelsmy 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.

Here’s their list:

  • Cathay Pacific
  • Etihad Airways
  • Qatar Airlines
  • LAN Airlines
  • Singapore Airlines
  • ANA
  • Virgin Atlantic Airways
  • Qantas
  • British Airways

Who Should – and Should Not – Have Made the List

I don’t get the inclusion of Virgin Atlantic, for sure. British Airways does have some thoughtful choices though I don’t think of them as a top 10.

It’s interesting and unsurprising that there are no US airlines in this list. My sense is that Delta is willing to spend more on international business class wine than either United or American although they don’t close to be among the best.

US Airways Wine

Emirates, however, should be on the list for sure. 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.

Meanwhile Qantas is the third largest buyer of Australian wine

Wine is Different in the Air — and Often Wasted

It’s hard to put together a good in-air wine program. Not only is cost a huge factor, given the number of bottles being consumed by large airlines (so even small price changes are magnified in effect) but when you need large orders sourcing and distribution capability is a constraint.

What’s more, wine tastes different in a pressurized cabin than it does on the ground. American’s approach 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.

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 wiines will taste in the air. Singapore has designed the conditions on the ground to be able to taste things closer to actual flight conditions.

Singapore Airlines is also 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?”

Champagne often works well onboard, and I tend to favor it over even better old world wines. And I don’t pick my carrier based on its wine program, even if it’s a signal of the detail that goes into a product — many of the airlines that do wine well do other things well also. But since I know the detail of those other choices, my preferences tend to be based on seat first and foremost, followed by service and food, rarely amenities or drink selection (even if I enjoy the non-alcoholic su jeong gwa on Korean Air).

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I know that Lucky had a guest writer share recently about how to select wines onboard, and he reviewed AA business & First class wines, as well as Cathay first class wines. If you happened to read that, I’m curious as to what you thought about the 4 part series

  2. I found Emirates (biz) selection to be pretty unispiring, not enough focus on wines that might taste good in the air. It’s all about name and label. An undecanted big Bordeaux at altitude is worse than jug wine.

    Also in the spirits they don’t carry a bourbon only jack daniels which.

    I tell you where Emirates really do well, though, that’s in cheese. Their cheese plates have some really interesting selections and the soft cheeses are perfectly ripe and ready to eat.

  3. I just checked on the William Hill Cab from the Central Coast. First question is who buys cabs from the central coast?? Someone should be fired for that alone. This is an average rated wine, but those of us in this hobby would say below average rated. The cost on purchase was $20.

  4. @Chris,

    Some vintages are better than others. In the case of Krug, the majority of vinatges have similar scores on Cellartracker. That’s an amazing statistic.

  5. As a wine fanatic with quite a cellar full, too boot, I laugh at these rankings of wine in carriers. Very few wines on ANY carrier come even close to being comparable to what are generally considered good wines at even solid restaurants. Just like very little food on any carrier comes even close to being comparable to what is generally considered good food at solid or good restaurants.

    As for dhammer53’s comment about central coast wines, I am laughing at him. There are some incredible world-class wines from that region.

    Such comments just go to show that the overwhelming majority of flyers–especially in premium classes, in my experience–have less knowledge of wines as they believe they do. Economy flyers know less but are aware that they know less; premium flyers think they know wine even when most are oblivious.

  6. @Adam – do you mean the Cathay review part or the conclusion?

    @Gary, @Adam either way, I think it’s fair to say that Asian airlines are deeply interested in prestige wines over wines that actually taste good in the air. Maybe the reason is cultural and has something do with the relative familiarity their customers would have with wine (and count me in as a heretic that thinks Krug and Dom are more sizzle than steak, so to speak).

    The European airlines on the list are not surprising – Europeans know their wine and are unlikely to put up with junk wines. My guess is that their premium cabin European fliers are, however, more likely to appreciate interesting regional specialty wines beyond just the big labels (such as VS’s decision to include English sparkling wine

  7. @Bill, you’re correct. I own some good wines from the Central Coast region, but none of them are cab sauv. 😉 Most of my holdings are syrah and pinot noir.

    I checked average ratings on Cellartracker for cabs. Here are several results:

    Napa 90.7 – 302,000 notes
    Sonoma 89 – 60,000 notes
    Central Coast 87.2 – 21,000 notes Justin and J. Lohr got a combined 40% of the notes.

    N.B. – 10% of my cellar is from this region. Wines to include Carlisle, Liquid Farm, Sandler, Sea Smoke, and Tensley. This was an interesting exercise. Thanks for making me do the research.

  8. @Andrew M I was referring to the overall series explaining how to choose wine in the air and then evaluating the wines of American and Cathay.

    Overall, i quite enjoyed it, since I’ve never really thought about how to choose wine in the air before. And I’m not offended by your low score for Krug, i don’t have the same feelings for it that lucky has 🙂

  9. I’m surprised that New Zealand Air – a superb airline – isn’t on the list given their emphasis on all things NZ including their wonderful Savuignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs.

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