The palate, and perception of the taste and smell of food and drink, changes at altitude. But what rules of thumb can you apply when presented with a wine list?

There are a few basic rules. Firstly, if offered champagne, the answer is: yes. Champagne always tastes good at altitude.

Secondly, whites work better in-flight than reds.

However, if you must drink red, try and order fruitier wines, and those that don’t have overly assertive tannins.

In economy you don’t usually get much of a choice, but, the guidelines for business class and first class are quite different; we detail them here.

What to choose in business class

The judges of our annual Cellars in the Sky tasting had some pertinent observations to make about airline wines in general. “There were one or two shockers [in this year’s tasting] but, overall, the standard of the many airline wines we tried was very good,” said judge Sarah Abbott MW. “Airlines are now thinking about the effect of the cabin environment, and picking wines that are fruit forward and quite expressive; not too tannic for the reds, not too high in acidity for the whites.”

Judge Tim Atkin MW suggests avoiding reds from Bordeaux (also known as clarets). “They are completely wrong for the air: tannic, too high in acidity and invariably young because the airlines can’t get the older vintages.” But if red is your preference, then order carefully. Judge Richard Bampfield MW pointed out that the business class reds were particularly tricky, as they are cheaper than the first class reds. “For this purpose, Bordeaux isn’t necessarily the best choice; we had few if any [Bordeaux] getting though to the finals.” So what does work? “In business class reds, the three top wines were all shiraz/syrah,” said judge Peter McCombie MW. So order fruit-forward red grape varieties, such as syrah (the French grape variety that’s called shiraz in Australia, California and elsewhere).

What to choose in first class

Head judge Charles Metcalfe summarised the distinctions between the business class and first class wine lists: “First class is more overtly posh – posh clarets, posh white Burgundies. It [first class] tries harder to put on well-known names; it will have well-known classed growths and posh appellations. But having white Burgundy from posh appellations doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to get a good wine, because of the paucity of supply. In recent years, they have had some terrible vintages in terms of quantity in Burgundy, so inevitably someone who is looking to get quite a large quantity of wine [such as an airline] is going to have to turn to producers who are perhaps not the crème de la crème, but who have enough quantity to get on board.”

There were quite a few surprises once the bottles were unwrapped in our tasting  – “That’s why it tastes like the illegitimate son of New Zealand and the Loire!” Peter McCombie exclaimed, referring to a Kiwi sauvignon blanc made by a Loire producer. But, for all of us present at Cellars in the Sky, it was a surprise to see such domination in the white-wine tastings (both business and first class) by one grape variety: chardonnay, with all three winners in first class made from the world’s most popular, and most versatile, grape. It seems that those who have been predicting its demise may have a while to wait before other white grapes are contenders for pole position.

While recognising that the first class reds did much better than the business class reds, Charles Metcalfe still had the caveat: “Red is more difficult. So in first class go for the whites, or for the Rhône grapes,” meaning fruity red blends, particularly those using the syrah grape. But if red it must be, with first class’s greater spend on wine, the choice of “name” Bordeaux reds worked better than in business class. As Charles Metcalfe observed, “There were two Bordeaux reds that came through in the final four – but the others were a northern Rhône and a malbec from Argentina.”

Peter McCombie summed up the business and first class tastings as follows. “Last year we said the airlines could make bolder choices. Maybe they listened.”