The Wine-Lover's Guide to the Best Airline Vintages
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The Wine-Lover's Guide to the Best Airline Vintages

Business Class Seat with served champagne
(c) Bertlmann

The romance of air travel, we are often told, died sometime many years ago—pre-mergers, pre-terrorism, pre-the Great Recession. And yet, when you board a flight, you’re hopeful that something great is going to happen. We travel because we are optimists. If we were pessimists, we would simply stay home and pay bills.

One of the small but significant luxuries of flying—even in coach—is that you can still get an excellent glass of wine. It’s a happy surprise, something to take your mind off the fact that you’re in a metal tube hurtling through the sky some 35,000 feet in the air.

True, maybe you’re just using the wine to steady your nerves, and you figure any old vintage or producer will do. But wine quality matters in the air just as it does on the ground. And when you have a good experience, it’s that much more memorable.

I surveyed the current (and in some cases very recent) offerings from many of the major airlines to figure out what the best options are on each, and what the literal flavor of these programs are. The results may surprise you: South Africa is trending, and you’ll get more good German wines in the air than in any restaurant. Remember that not every wine is available on every flight; some selections are route-based. So lie back, fasten your seatbelt, read on—and feel free to uncork a nice wine as you go.

Southwest

Southwest only has one class of service, and they offer two inexpensive wines for $5 a pop, Hacienda Chardonnay and Carmenet Cabernet Sauvignon. But here’s the deal: You’ve picked Southwest precisely because of the affordable ticket, so when those wines are offered, you can feel virtuous and thrifty. Save that money for a wine splurge when get to your destination.

American Airlines

Of the domestic carriers with global reach, American Airlines has the best options in Economy for purchase when you look across all their routes. One example: Noble Vines 667 Pinot Noir from the Monterey region of California is a pretty serious glass of wine for a middle seat in the Main Cabin—sign me up for that, please.

In Business, you’re expecting something more, and you get it (though I think United bests them on this score). I would happily tipple Flagstone Noon Gun, a complex blend of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier hailing from the Western Cape area of South Africa, on a flight from Dallas to Hawaii.

In first class, American steps it up with bubbly, and serves vintage Champagne from the great house Louis Roederer—the people who make the world-famously bling-y Cristal. Roederer is known for elegant, balanced Champagne, and the vintages are super sought-after—you may see me sneaking up from Economy to sip one of these before slinking back to my real, middle seat.

United

United starts off in Economy with a couple of Cali selections for $8: Reliz Creek Pinot Noir 2011 from Arroyo Seco, in the Monterey region of California, and Hess Select Chardonnay 2013, also from Monterey. Between these two, I’d pick the Hess because it’s so reliably fruity.

I think United has the best Business class offerings of the U.S.-based carriers. Their French options are very strong, and include a Louis Latour Les Genièvres 2012 Macon-Lugny, France a lovely, well-oaked Chardonnay. And I adore some of the specialty route offerings in Biz: Flying to Germany or Switzerland and being poured Weingüter J. Wegeler Riesling QbA Feinherb 2012 from the heralded Rheingau region (in Deutschland) would make the time pass very smoothly indeed.

For their GlobalFirst selection, United was smart enough to get in on the “grower Champagne” trend (meaning smaller wine-grape growers and not from one of the big houses), offering the full-bodied Didier Chopin Brut NV to its best, deepest-pocketed customers. I detect the expertise of United’s wine adviser, Master Sommelier Doug Frost, in all these savvy options.

JetBlue

I think JetBlue has the best overall wine selection among U.S. carriers. The airline has found success with limited routes, and true to form, the wine selections are smaller, but extremely well chosen. We can credit Jon Bonné—the former wine critic of the San Francisco Chronicle and a key proponent of the lower-alcohol movement—for this, as he advises the airline on their wines.

For the Core section (Economy in JetBlue speak), Bonné has mined the undervalued French region of Languedoc for two wines from Domaine de la Baume, a Colombard-Chardonnay blend for the white and a Cabernet Sauvignon for the red. They are modest wines to be sure, but they get you thinking about a region that bears more exploration for U.S. consumers.

And in Mint, JetBlue’s premium class, the focus is on smaller, niche California wineries—a major point of difference compared to any airline out there. Copain Tous Ensemble Chardonnay 2014, made in the hidden-away Anderson Valley north of Sonoma, is a rich and textured white, and something of a cult wine.

And Folkway Revelator Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, from down in Santa Barbara, is a fresh take on Cab, which can be heavy in the wrong hands. I would be excited to have either one of these on a JetBlue flight across the country or to the Caribbean—cheers to Bonné and JetBlue for digging deep into the bounty of the Golden State.

Delta

Delta picks up steam in the premium classes, particularly during the dessert service.

In Business and First, all of the airlines offer a sweet wine, generally a Port. Delta does too, a couple of them in fact: a lovely Tawny Porto from Ferreira Dona Antonio and a 10-year-old Tawny from Calem.

But let’s give the airline props for also including in its Business class service Chateau du Cros Loupiac, from France’s Bordeaux region. It’s a Sauternes-like sweet white wine made from Semillon, Sauvignon and Muscadelle grapes that have been subjected to a fungus known as “noble rot”—sounds weird, but tastes really good, as it concentrates the sweetness. If flying in a premium class is all about treating yourself, a glass of this golden nectar fits the bill.

Air France

Does it surprise you that Air France has super wine on board? And that is it all French? NON, it does not.

Air France is the only airline to offer complimentary Champagne on board long-haul international flights to all passengers in all cabins. From everyone flying in Economy, we thank you.

I’m a dyed in the wool Francophile, so it’s hard to pick a favorite from their many options. In Premium Economy, I’d go the crisp French Chardonnay route, with JM.Brocard Chablis 2014—lovely. In Business, a Sancerre from Domaine Fournier Père et Fils, the Grande Cuvée La Chaudouillonne 2013, would be a tangy, aromatic way to get where you’re going.

In First Class? So. Many. Choices. Maybe I’ll start with dessert, because I can! An unctuous, golden Barsac Château Doisy-Védrines 2008? Then Taittinger Cuvée Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2005: that is a WOW of a vintage bubbly, from perhaps my favorite house.

KLM

The Dutch have had a lot of good ideas—tulips, Rembrandt, the market economy—but the fact that wine and champagne is free in all KLM cabins certainly qualifies as one of the best.

They keep it simple in Economy, with two wines from the South African producer Julien Schaal, The Elements White and The Elements Red Wine. It’s a “house wine” concept and it’s smart: KLM buys in bulk from this respected producer.

In World Business, you’re treated to non-vintage Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne, a great house known for the toasty balance of its product. As for the whites: the Paul Jaboulet Viognier 2015 is a very cool expression of a grape that too few people know and appreciate. A 2012 Rioja from Beronia is a smoky, smooth option among the reds.

Lufthansa

Let’s give the Germans credit here. Their stated policy on wine selections is as follows: “We select wines with a little more residual sweetness and a higher alcohol content, as both are weaker in the air.” Go big and sweet, or go home—that’s the German way. After all, their entire Riesling classification system is based on how much sugar the grapes have at the time they’re picked.

I was able to lay hands on the info for their First Class selection, and yes Riesling—the national grape—is well represented by Weingut Künstler Rüdesheimer Klosterlay Riesling Trocken 2013. Say that five times fast, or just order five glasses.

Germany doesn’t make much fine red wine, and so the country has always looked to Spain and Italy to shore up that part of the wine list. So does Lufthansa. And in Miguel Torres Salmos 2009, from the Priorat region of Spain, they have selected a favorite wine of mine, made from Garnacha, Syrah, Carinena and Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s got deep, rich red fruit flavors and a touch of mocha. For that, I’ll put up with a change of planes in the Frankfurt airport.

Virgin Atlantic

Once an upstart, now establishment, Virgin is looking to South Africa for wines in its Premium Economy service. (I can safely say South Africa is trending in the skies as far as wine menus, it’s all over the place.) Soft and light, the blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Viognier from the winery Woody Cape would go well with a lot of dishes. The Upper Class list changes every quarter—most of the airlines swap up their picks regularly, especially in premium cabins—but they get props for currently serving a silky Spanish red from Bodegas Matanegra, in the fantastic Ribera del Duero region.

JAL

The Japanese have always had a fierce appreciation of French wine, and JAL offers many pearls of France on its long-haul routes. Economy-wise, a basic red and a basic white from the South of France start us off: Yvon mau Vin de Pays IGP Côtes de Gascogne Colombard Chardonnay and Yvon Mau Vin de Pays de I'Aude Merlot.

In the premium cabins, it has the broadest list of Champagne I’ve seen. Depending on where you’re going, in Business Class you’ve got the houses Charles Heidsieck (a personal fave), Taittinger, Delamotte and more. And in First, we’re talking Champagne Salon 2004—a true head-turner.

And who knew the Japanese were making wine? JAL serves Suntory Premium Japan Chardonnay 2014 in Business. I’ve never had a wine made from grapes grown in that country, but if I was flying JAL tomorrow, that’s what I would try, for the sheer novelty.

QANTAS

It’s all-Aussie, all the time on Qantas, and I give them credit for picking from all over the country for First and Business class. They serve wine from two incredible producers in the Margaret River region that I very recently visited in person: a toothsome Leeuwin Estate Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 and a bright, beguiling Vasse Felix Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2015. Both are superb examples of the versatility of this bucolic area three hours south of Perth.

But the Eastern side of Australia gets plenty of attention: Hungerford Hill Pinot Noir 2013 (a grape not among the country’s strong suits, usually), Mount Langi Shiraz 2013 (the grape that made the place famous) and many more. It’s a thoughtful and balanced bunch.

CATHAY PACIFIC

I had the great pleasure of flying this airline to Hong Kong a few years ago, and their service deserves all the stellar praise it gets.

Given its track record, the wines are a touch underwhelming in First and Business—Hahn Estates Meritage 2011 is a nice wine, but not really First Class caliber. This is slightly mitigated by having Krug Grand Cuvee Champagne on hand. That’s more like it.

Ditto the Business offerings: Liberty School Central Coast Merlot 2012 wouldn’t thrill me at all, given the price of the ticket. However, red-wine-wise they sand off those rough edges by offering a Languedoc Roussillon wine promotion featuring four wines from the area including the silkily textured Chateau L’Hospitalet La Reserve Red La Clape Coteaux du Languedoc 2013. Gold star for delving into the way-underappreciated Languedoc area.

And in Economy, Boschendal Jean Garde Unoaked Chardonnay 2015 is double-trend winner: unoaked Chards are hot, and as I’ve said, South Africa is the most popular girl in school when it comes to airline wine service.

Etihad

On the business class Etihad flight I was lucky enough to go on last month, the wine menu was better than many restaurants I’ve been to. (Even the airport lounges offer interesting selections.)

The Abu Dhabi–based airline basically offered me a tasting flight in the sky—I happily careered down the list, from a piquant Brancott Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2014 from New Zealand’s Marlborough region to an elegant Franklin Tate Estates Shiraz 2013 from Margaret River, the Australian area where I was heading.

The airline has a penchant for France, Australia, Germany, and New Zealand in particular in its wine picks, and I endorse those choices. Somewhere on the same plane I was on, within the First Class pods known as the Residence, butlers were serving lucky passengers Bollinger Champagne La Grande Année 2005, and unfortunately I was too jet-lagged to try and cajole one of the Business attendants to try and grab me some. But a guy can dream.

Singapore Airlines

Many of the big carriers have big-name consultants, but Singapore has enlisted no less than three: British wine writer Oz Clarke; Jeannie Cho Lee, the first Asian Master of Wine; and critic Michael Hill Smith, Australia’s first Master of Wine.

Riesling gets a starring role on in Singapore’s Suites service, aka First Class. Reichsgraff von Kesselstatt Piesporter Goldtröpfschen Riesling Spätelese 2013 is about as interesting a white wine as you’ll find—semi-sweet, unctuous and complex. That added to Dom Pérignon 2006 Champagne makes for plenty of good times in First—the whites and sparklers are the standouts here.

In Business, fade to red: Specifically, a couple of nice Bordeaux that are on offer. Chateau Doyac 2012 and Chateau Peyrabon 2010 both merit sips, particularly the latter, a with a touch of age on it and from a great vintage. It augurs well for your flight to or from Singapore.

LAN Airlines

I like that LAN balances the South American focus you’d expect with a few selections from around the world—they don’t pretend that Chile, Argentina and Brazil represent the whole world of wine.

This month in their Business Class, you can sip a glass of Torrontes, one of my favorite unheralded white grapes, from Bodega Dominio Del Plata / Crios in Argentina, but also Croft’s Late Bottled Vintage Port 2009 from Portugal.

Their selection isn’t huge, but it’s smart.

Ted Loos is the Travel + Leisure’s Wine and Spirits Contributor. Follow him on Twitter at @looslips.

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