Wines in the Air. British Airways and Emirates look to please passengers

A selection of Bordeaux Grand Crus Classé wines served on board Emirates first class cabin

Despite the challenges they face, airlines are going all out to please passengers on long-haul flights with their wine offering. Carol Wright describes what to expect on British Airways and Emirates

Settled back in one’s seat with some hours of flight ahead may seem the ideal time to savour a glass of wine. However, flying is not the ideal way to appreciate the subtle nuances of wines with cabin pressure reducing the effectiveness of one’s taste buds at 35,000 feet.

Wines in the air pose some very real challenges. A Lufthansa study showed that the perception of saltiness and sweetness dropped by 30% in flight. The cabin air lowers humidity to 20% or less; cabins are often drier than some deserts. This lack of moisture also reduces the sense of smell which again affects taste judgement. Summed up, the effect is like drinking wine with a heavy cold’s blocked nose. Other factors that adversely affect inflight taste are engine noise and vibration, time change and stress.

Airlines try and counteract this effect by modifying food recipes and adding more spices such as curry and lemongrass flavours. They cannot do much about wines, however. No known winery is prepared to adapt its process to make wines especially for airlines. It is the passenger’s response, not the wine that changes in the air and a well balanced wine at ground level will still be that at 35,000 feet.

Bordeaux and white Burgundies are expected in First and Club classes but they do not always travel well; fruit and sweetness is suppressed and tannins and acidity, exaggerated

Fine Bordeaux and white Burgundies are expected in First and Club classes but they do not always travel well; fruit and sweetness is suppressed and tannins and acidity, exagerated. Ripe, fruity New World wines are a better palate choice although passengers tend to want recognised brands and labels. Informed advice is to go for bigger-styled wines; nothing subtle or aperitif drinking style. Shiraz, Merlot, Chardonnay and Viognier with bigger riper flavours and lower acidity are the best grape bets. Red meat with an Australian Shiraz would be a made-in-the skies combination.

British Airways’ Club Class wine service is impeccable

Champagne is one of the delights of premium class air travel and, again, it loses some of its ground level charm. It is a good idea to drink it as soon after take-off as possible before atmospheric changes cause bubbles to be lost. They tend to stick to the side of the glass rather than be released in a steady, pleasurable stream. This is one viticultural area where producers may tweak their product a little for an airline. Sparkling wines are bottled at a lower pressure for airplanes than for use at ground level. If this was not done and the cabin pressure dropped for some reason (when the oxygen masks appear) the bottles in the galley would explode.

But in spite of taste loss airplanes are often the place to discover new wines which one might like to taste again on the ground. Two leading airlines, British Airways and Emirates think their passengers should have this opportunity and have set up their own wine retailing outlets, reflecting the full resumption of in-flight food and wine service pared back during the pandemic.

British Airways is linking appreciation for wine with brand loyalty by offering Avios travel reward points on all wine sold through The Wine Flyer

British Airways’ announced its online wine retailer, ‘The Wine Flyer’ (thewineflyer.co.uk) in October 2022. Jack Smith its CEO, said, “We know that wine is a huge passion of many of our clients, so we are offering a broad choice in country, region, grape style and price point to suit as many customers as possible. With our own ouotlet, we have a unique opportunity to bring to customers a variety of wines including those that they’ve enjoyed in the air.”

The airline hopes tasting the wines will bring back memories of travel and destinations visited. Every wine in the range comes from a country served by British Airways including France, South Africa, USA, Australia and New Zealand. The range includes premium brands, for example Whispering Angel, Penfolds and Moët & Chandon. Some of the wines have been chosen because of past popularity on flights, like Barossa Valley’s Teusner’s The Riebke Shiraz. Some are included in the Wine Flyer range as they will be served on future flights.

BA’s long-haul flights for the first time are serving an English sparkling wine in First class — Hattingley Valley Blanc de Noirs 2018. The Teusner Riebke Shiraz and Te Tera Pinot Noir Martinborough 2020 are air robust wines available along with wines from Pauillac and St Julien in Bordeaux. In Club class, wines to combat taste buds that have become less appreciative in pressurised flying conditions are a De Morgenzon DMZ Chardonnay from Stellenbosch and Swartland Winery’s Limited Release Syrah.

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The wine lists are usually changed every three months though the Cru Classé red Bordeaux wines in First Class may be changed more often. Menus, too, are changed regularly reflecting the destinations served and highlighting dishes according to the routes flown, such as Chicken Dum Biryani on routes from India and King Prawn Machbous from the Middle East. The menu is paired with wines from the in-flight list that the airline thinks will remind travellers of the places they visit and will want to buy them when they return home.

British Airways is linking appreciation for wine with brand loyalty by offering Avios travel reward points on all wine sold through The Wine Flyer

A selection of Bordeaux Grand Crus Classé wines served on board Emirates first class cabin

British Airways is linking appreciation for wine with brand loyalty by offering Avios travel reward points on all wine sold through ‘The Wine Flyer’. A subscription option with higher Avios points helps customers collect enough Avios to fly to short-haul destinations from the UK such as Paris, Barcelona and Naples in only six months. Wine has certainly become a window on the world!

Emirates provides an immersive wine experience including its own wine channel on Dubai TV with flight information, ability to check out what is being served on board ahead of a trip and order the wine in advance; or browse at Emirate’s retail wine shop, Le Clos established 15 years ago at Dubai airport where wines from producers featured in-flight can be tasted and preordered
to be collected later. Le Clos ranges also include such labels as Petrus, Margaux and Mouton Rothschild. All the wines are available online. (leclos.net/emirates.)

Le Clos and inflight wines are selected and bought by the same team. Emirates’s regular tasting panels include personnel from their culinary team, procurement and general management. The airline’s president is also involved. Every wine is assessed on its quality, personality and how it fits within the airline programme. There are 250 wine changes each year or roughly five a week. Bordeaux and Burgundy are key regions that have grown significantly in the past three years. Ten new producers have been sourced, according to the company, in the past year alone to keep up with demand. Tuscany is also an important region. In the New World, California’s Napa Valley is the region offering wine aficionados with an earlier drinking alternative to Bordeaux.

Emirates’ inflight lists have a special bottle symbol indicating that the wine is available for purchase at Le Clos. An example is the 2002 Château Lascombes

Emirates has six different wine lists split geographically to suit a worldwide mix of passengers’ tastes.

Champagne served on Brithish Airways. Wine lists are changed every three months

The wine lists have three basics: Champagne, a French white wine and a red Bordeaux which are the most popular choices. As with British Airways, the selection of alternate in-flight wines depends on the route and are chosen from the areas to where the flights are flying, for example, Australian and New Zealand wines on those routes while the wines from Tuscany are the most favoured on European routes.

Emirates airline will keep a particular vintage for years to serve it at the appropriate time, even though large profits could be made by selling it. Thus, a case of 2013 Tignanello was recently served on all European routes.

The inflight lists have a special bottle symbol indicating that the wine is available for purchase at Le Clos. An example is the 2002 Château Lascombes, a Bordeaux Second Growth Cru Classé which has a silky texture and ‘an endless finish’.

Each wine is listed with detailed tasting notes, often including details of terroir and the producer’s biography. Some wines that are exclusive to Emirates are indicated by a star and a note saying, ‘You won’t find (this) anywhere else’. Such wines include 2010 Château Valandraud ‘Virginie de Valandraud’, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classé with ‘a long smoky blackcurrant finish’, served in both First and Club classes which I found went very well with a veal fillet.

The First Class list also features The Emirates Vintage Collection described as ‘the rarest and most exclusive wines from our cellar in Bordeaux matured for over ten years and handpicked for you by our sommeliers’. The airline’s cellar contains some 7000 wines including different bottle sizes. In Club Class, the Sommelier’s choice is tagged as ‘sometimes we bring on board special wines that aren’t on our list’. Emirates says these are hidden gems bought in small parcels and served on various regional routes to heighten the traveller’s experience.

The company says their aim is to provide versatile Old and New World wines in a range of flavours while maintaining quality in the challenging cabin environment.