Introduction: One Merlot At A Time

Filed Under: American, Cathay Pacific

OMAAT commenter Andrew M. is a frequent traveler and points/miles enthusiast as well as a knowledgeable wine expert, who weighed in on the great English sparkling wine debate a couple months ago. Because wine takes on a totally different flavor and complexity at 35,000 feet as opposed to sea level, Andrew M. has offered to share his insights as to maximizing your enjoyment of wine in flight; he’s also reviewed wine on a few different first class and business class legs for comparison. Enjoy this series, and thanks, Andrew M.!

Introduction And Selecting Wine On Airplanes
Wine Review: American Business Class Beijing To Dallas
Wine Review: American First Class Dallas To Madrid
Wine Review: Cathay Pacific First Class Frankfurt To Hong Kong
Conclusion And Bottom Line

Is American First Class catering better than Cathay’s?

At least for wine?

It’s a nearly Buzzfeed-worthy question, but this is one of only several heresies (at least for longtime readers of this blog) that I’ll discuss in this post. 😉

First, a few caveats

1. Wine is an inherently subjective activity

From the most novice wine drinker up through Robert Parker, everyone has a different palate and preferences. There is no such thing as right or wrong preferences. Drink what you like and don’t let anyone dissuade you from doing so.

If you really enjoy Budweiser then go crazy on Bud in Singapore Airlines First Class and ignore the haters.

2. Wine tasting, even when done by professionals, is a highly random process. 

Even among professional wine taste testers and so-called “supertasters” that can taste better than 99% of the population, there is a high degree of randomness in evaluations.

Experiments have shown that, given the same lineup of wines, judges will change their ranking seemingly at random. Wine preferences are highly affected by things such as the last wine you had, the flavor of the food you’re eating, and even the color of the wine.

3. Your mind plays tricks when you consume wine.

Basic things such as the label of the bottle have been shown to influence evaluation of a wine (wines from “well-known” producers score more highly in evaluations).

Knowing the price point of a wine has also been shown to heavily influence evaluation of a wine (an experiment was done where the same wine was placed in bottles listed at different price points. The more expensive wine was rated much more highly).

Even the color of wine can prime your evaluation of the wine. In fact, it is difficult for a not small number of wines to tell if a wine is white or red in a blind taste test.

To be sure, many of the above results are perhaps somewhat overstated – there is a strong element of schadenfreude running through much of the reporting, as everyone is eager to take down those pretentious snobby wine lovers. At the same time, the findings do point out that one ought to be humble in claiming expertise in wine tasting ability. I think this article strikes perhaps the best balance: there is a lot of wine buffoonery out there but drinking wine isn’t a totally random experience.

With that long preamble out of the way, how do these findings affect which wine you want to pick on an airplane?

Overall wine selection advice on airplanes

Many of the problems noted above are worsened on an airplane.

For one, altitude dulls your taste buds. So a wine that on the ground might have an invitingly complex flavor will often taste dull and ordinary in the air.

Additionally, there are few ways to anchor your expectations about wine up in the air. The flight attendants will often be lucky to know if they have white or red wines, much less be able to give you a helpful description of the flavor of the wine. The tasting notes listed in the wine list (unless you are flying United, in which case they stopped even bothering with a wine list) are usually copied from the manufacturer and often leave out helpful information like whether a wine is high acidity or what the tannin levels are.

This naturally leads a lot of people to make a beeline straight for the champers in flight, as the wine is a known quantity from a big producer.

Champagne: possibly the raison d'être of this blog?
Champagne: possibly the raison d’être of this blog?

I know this blog and many in the hobby really delight in consuming high-end champagne on international flights, but if you like other wines, resist that impulse at least a little bit!

For people who like wine, drinking champagne up in the air is not the best choice.

By all means, drink as much as you want if you enjoy the novelty of drinking expensive champagne that you’d never buy for yourself or you don’t really enjoy most other types of wine. And help yourself to as much as one can reasonably consume on the ground.

However, champagne is a very light and delicate wine that suffers significantly when consumed at altitude. Many of the subtleties of the wine (which already has a limited flavor expression range anyway) vanish at altitude and can also easily be overwhelmed by the lingering flavor of most foods.

If you want to see this example for yourself, write up some tasting notes, recording what flavors you notice on the ground. Then make the same list up in the air. Every time I’ve made before and after notes, I’ve found the depth and richness of champagne has been much reduced up in the air – for me it often tastes monochromatic or flat up in the air.

Drink new world wines

Instead, most people would be better served by ordering wines that on the ground might be thought of as “fruit bombs.” Wines that have very strong flavors and significant spiciness on the ground tend to translate better to the conditions up in the air.

As a very basic rule of thumb, the hotter the climate the more a wine will likely be deeply fruity and spicy. This includes wines from places like Napa Valley, Australia, and Chile. There are of course exceptions: in my experience, some German wines tend to translate well into the air while I’ve had bad luck with the comparatively hotter climate wines of Italy.

The problem is that most people, when asked to name a good quality wine, tend to think of French wines, particularly Bordeauxs and Burgundies (and, of course, wines from Champagne). The reason these (expensive) wines are so well regarded is that a good Burgundy and Bordeaux can be wonderfully complex, subtle and interesting to drink… making it a bad wine to drink when up in the air!

Asian carriers, in particular, tend to feature French-heavy wine lists that include some very famous wines from historically significant wine districts (AOCs). This is a shame on two levels. On the one hand, a great bottle of wine is wasted in flight when it would have brought much more joy to someone on the ground. On the other, the passenger ends up drinking flavorless wine on the flight. They would likely have been equally well served by having some two buck Chuck.

As a demonstration of the above points, I wrote up my reviews of wines on several of my recent flights. It was certainly tough taking one for the blog reader team by trying all the wines on each of the flights. 😉 

Note: We’ll publish Andrew’s reviews of American business class wine selection tomorrow, followed by American’s first class selections and then Cathay Pacific’s first class selections. Cheers!

  1. This happens to me all the time with Laurent Perrier Grand Siecle! I’ll drink a pre departure glass of it on BA and I love it, but after take-off, the same glass is absolutely revolting and I can’t get it down! Luckily, I can drink Krug both on the ground and in the air.

  2. “It’s a nearly Buzzfeed-worthy question”

    It’s definitely has the taste of click-bait, whether on the ground or at 35,000 feet…

  3. Your final point of “wasted” great bottles bears out your earlier point about knowing the price point heavily influences the quality judgment of the consumer. I totally agree.

    In your caveat #1, “everyone has a different palette”: you mean “palate”. Palettes are used by artists to mix paint.

  4. I may be banned from OMAAT for life for saying this but…

    All wines and champagnes (is champagne considered to be wine?) taste like swill to me.

    Just keep the premium vodka flowing and I’ll be happy.

  5. Over-ripe high alcohol fruit bombs appeal to some but not all. I think they suck, others love them.

    So what if they suck less at altitude. They still suck (in my opinion).

  6. An interesting and balanced introduction IMHO and I’m looking forward to future installments.

  7. I should add that I appreciate Andrews acknowledgement of the subjectivity in his first point.

  8. Really interesting idea for a series! Can’t wait to read your posts. I hope this becomes a regular feature on this blog!

  9. This is spot-on, based on my own experience. Dom Perignon at at 6 miles up tastes bland and uninteresting. You need something robust to withstand the thin, dry air up there. One of the best wines I ever had in the sky was an Argentinian Malbec in UA business class. It really surprised me – it was subtle and complex; did United pay a lot of money for this? No, it retails for $10, and on the ground it was practically undrinkable.

  10. @Imperator see point 1: drink what you like 🙂

    @colleen – good catch. Some days my typing is better than others.

  11. @snic, Jack Buck It is bizarre how wines can go from undrinkable to tasty up in the air and vice versa.

    @beachfan I’m generally not a fan of fruit bombs on the ground either (of course I won’t say no if someone gives me a bottle of Silver Oak). That said, for me, some structured fruit bombs probably do better than unstructured one note wonders at altitude. That’s what I usually go for on flights.

    But, to each their own – there are never any right answers for wine, only personal preferences.

  12. So much of it is mind over matter. I’ve had stunning Bordeaux in the company of boring business types and couldn’t appreciate it. And I’ve had two buck chuck with great friends on a whim and it hit the spot.

  13. Interesting comments, my thoughts are that the altitude exaggerates the nuances of whatever wine you are drinking. We are California wine lovers and have had hundreds of Bordeaux vs. California Cabernet or Cab blend comparisons over the years and at 37K feet, even the best Bordeaux will never stand up to the “fruit bombs” from California. The real question is what happens to any wine stored on a jet with the constant vibration, altitude and temperature changes. The answer is nothing good at all because these are the worst enemies of wine – and you need to think beyond Silver Oak! This Cab blend is often the first wine discovered by novices but there are hundreds of better Napa & Sonoma red wines!

  14. @Ken It doesn’t look like it will but as a sneak peak, I highly recommend trying the Rhone special addition wines.

    @pavel Definitely. I’ll take cheap wine with my friends than an expensive Bordeaux drunk in a Burger King by myself any day of the week.

    @JD VanHoose Interesting. For me, the sensation is definitely dulled. If I get 3-4 flavor notes on the ground, I’ll only get 1-2 in the air. But I’m hardly a super taster, just an enthusiast and of course everyone’s experience is different. I originally come from Oregon so I’m partial to cool climate wines and thus more knowledgeable about Pinots/Burgundies/New Zealand wines but there are, as you note, loads of good Napa wine. On my list to drink my way through the region at some point 😉

  15. @ Andrew M: nice article.
    However, as a native French speaker, please note that ‘Bordeaux’ and ‘Burgundy’ are invariable names, so no ‘s’ at the end.

  16. “Champagne: possibly the raison d’être of this blog?”

    Truer words have never been typed here.

  17. SQ serves Tiger and Carlsberg in First. No Bud.

    (washing down my disappointment about sloppy journalism with a glass of Krug)… 😉

  18. I found drinking on the flight to be a bizarre experience. I actually think we should put some heavy beers on the menu to see if they would hold up better than most wines. I think the wines either taste sickly sweet or vapid, with the occasional odd success in a category I don’t usually prefer. Looking forward to this interpretation. Perhaps everyone should have a preference list: on the ground favorites and in the air favorites.

  19. 1) This is relevant to my interests.

    2) A while back, I saw a pic of an Emirates first class wine menu on this blog, and said menu featured Northstar Merlot. I loved seeing a premium airline offering an affordable Washington wine in first class.

  20. I find most wines on flights are served way too cold, even whites. A few minutes in the glass before gulping makes a difference. Though the palate is duller at altitude especially if ones sinus is playing up with the pressure.

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