Different airlines share the same goals in selecting their wine lists – they want consistency, quantity (so supplies don’t run out) and, of course, wines that taste delicious at altitude. However, all the airlines use slightly different methods to select their in-flight wines, so we spoke to three leading airlines to find out how they do it.

Air France did well in this year’s Cellars in the Sky competition, winning – among other awards – the silver medal for Best Overall Cellar. Its resident wine experts are Ghislaine Van Branteghem (catering product manager for long haul on Air France) and Paolo Basso (Best Sommelier in the World 2013). Air France also works with Michel Bettane and Thierry Desseauve, authors of Le Grand Guide des Vins de France.

“For three years we have worked with them on an upgrade of our wine lists in all cabins, even in economy and premium economy,” says Ciara MacHugh, spokesperson for Air France. “Our selection is based on blind tastings by our experts, then by Paolo’s tasting notes. The final choice depends on three criteria:

1) blind tasting notes;
2) the wine’s reputation;
3) quantity [availability] and price.”

Air France remains the only airline offering free champagne in economy class on long-haul flights, and has an exclusively French list. “In first class [we serve] grands crus or premiers crus, or wines with a very high reputation in Burgundy. For business class, we target well-known French wines and champagne with an international reputation. Bettane and Desseauve have an important role in this aspect. In economy and premium economy, IGP [indication géographique protégée, known as vin de pays in France] mainly from Languedoc region.”

Air France’s buying power is considerable, enough to buy wine en primeur
(bulk purchased in the barrel before bottling), but it also buys wine more conventionally, by the case (in multiples of 12 bottles).

“We buy about 50,000 bottles for a two-month cycle for business class and 2,800 bottles for two-months of first class,” says MacHugh. Air France passengers clearly enjoy the wine selection as, during a flight, “the majority drink more than three glasses of wine and champagne.”

Virgin Atlantic’s selection is overseen by Mark Pardoe MW, wine director of the leading UK vintners Berry Bros & Rudd. Wines are selected from BB&R’s extensive cellars – one of the largest selections of quality wines in the UK. Pardoe’s tasting panel is typically six to seven people. Wines for Upper Class are selected four times a year, though champagnes, sparkling wines, port and the offering in Premium Economy and Economy are reviewed annually.

“The wines for Upper Class are not tasted blind,” says Pardoe. “Each tasting has a range of wines of varying styles and at different prices, which are moved in and out of contention according to the evolving make-up and cost of each selection.

“BB&R has supplied Virgin Atlantic’s in-flight wines for more than a decade. In the early days there was an expectation that wines should conform to a style – full-bodied and flavoured, with low acidity and tannins and a high level of ripeness, to compensate for the [aircraft] conditions. However, our empirical feedback has led us to conclude that an intrinsic balance and harmony within the wine is more important in delivering a satisfactory experience than trying to make artificial adjustments within the selection process. This means that a wine with high acidity works well in the air, as long as that acidity is properly woven into the fabric of the wine as part of its personality, and balanced by the other components (fruit, body, etc) that are consistent with the wine’s character. The wine will taste different in the air, but it will retain harmony if it has been ‘grown, not made’.”

“The identification of these qualities is possible at ground level; if a wine fulfils those criteria there, it will work in the air too. I would add that [cabin] pressurisation and hydration systems in the air are more sophisticated now (eg on the new 787 Dreamliner) than they were when airline wine selections first became important; the ‘rules’ created then are less important now.”

Malaysia Airlines uses a slightly different approach that focuses on food and wine matching, as its menus often contain spicy Asian dishes. Malaysia Airlines’ senior manager for in-flight and catering operations, Ivy Tan, says: “We tend to look for expressive grape varietals such as sauvignon blanc and viognier. Even our chardonnay veers towards the unoaked or lightly oaked style to complement the wide range of Asian dishes that we offer. We tend to avoid wines that are overly acidic or tannic, much preferring ones with good balance and ripeness, but without excessive levels of alcohol.”

Selecting these wines for Malaysia Airlines is a rigorous international process. “Three rounds of tasting are conducted each year,” Tan continues. “The first is at the vineyard, during visits by our Malaysia-based wine merchant. The second is blind tastings conducted by the merchant, from which 150 wines are selected (out of 600). The third is the selection by our Malaysia-based sommeliers, restaurateurs and the Malaysia Airlines food and beverage team.”

It’s been my personal observation, following many flights to and from or within Asia, that westerners tend to drink far more wine than Asian passengers on flights; this anecdotal observation seems to be borne out by Tan. “Flights to London and Australia tend to have higher consumption levels, with passengers enjoying two to three glasses per flight on average. In terms of total consumption per annum, our passengers consume around 300,000 to 400,000 bottles across all three classes.” That’s a lot of expressive grapes to complement the airline’s signature satay sticks.