The consumption of wine onboard an aircraft can be a wonderful, enriching, and fun experience.  The movies you watch may be funnier, the guys sitting next to you more interesting and you’ll tend to fall asleep quicker.  Of course too much can cause dehydration and inebriation – but moderate levels of wine will definitely enhance your flying experience.  And since wine (unlike hard liquor) is meant to be enjoyed with food, the acids, sweetness, and unctuousness of wines served onboard can actually improve your enjoyment of the food itself.  In general, the longer the flight, the better the wine and not surprisingly, I’m speaking about the wines served in First or Business Class sections.

I recently conducted an experiment based on my curiosity about what happens to “Wine in the Sky,” or wines served at altitude aboard commercial aircraft.  After all, at 35,000 feet in the air the barometric pressure, temperature, velocity, G forces, and humidity are all much different than on terra firma.  Even the noise level is different on a plane than in a normal home environment.  Our noses and eyes react, our craniums tighten, our skin dries out and our taste buds most assuredly change.  But what about the wine in the bottle?  Unlike other beverages, wine is delicate and seemingly “alive.” Wine undergoes evolutionary modifications from the minute it’s created until the moment it passes our lips. How does flying affect it?  And do customers recognize a difference?
The tastings were conducted on the ground and in the air.  It happened I was off to London (on assignment) so Virgin Atlantic Airways, a premium airline, became my laboratory.  I sampled all the wines (including economy wines) in the swanky Upper Class portion of the aircraft during my nonstop San Francisco to London flight.  Then the identical wines were sampled at Berry Bros. & Rudd, the esteemed British Wine Supplier who administers the Virgin Atlantic Wine Program, at their St. James Street office in London.  To conclude, I tasted the wines once again on the journey home.  They were interesting flights to say the least.

Tastefully decorated with taupe, tan, and violet with off white accents, Virgin Atlantic’s modern Upper Class seating is somewhat like sitting in a flying spaceship.  The seats recline fully and plush duvets help induce sleeping on the ten to eleven hour polar flights.  My first tasting, conducted at the smart, onboard intimate Upper Class bar occurred at exactly 33,020 feet somewhere over Northern Canada.  A few fellow passengers joined me for a time, asking questions, taking my suggestions and eyeing my curiously before retiring for the night.  Even members of the crew came by to chat about the wines, though they didn’t join me.  I plugged away sample after sample because in the end – I needed to taste through the complete wine list.  If you’ve never tried it, the Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class bar is quite civilized.  Passengers can sit or stand beside it and meet fellow fliers while having a drink or two.  My return tasting took place, alone, somewhere in the dark skies above Greenland.
13 New Upper Class Suite
After arriving in London, I met with Mark Pardoe, Master of Wine and Wholesale Director at Berry Bros. & Rudd, at the company’s vast, three story building.  Berry Bros. & Rudd, in the exact location on tony St. James Street since 1698, was originally a coffee and spice merchant before moving on to the whiskey business and then into wine.  The shop is still an elegant suit-and-tie establishment exuding appropriate British class, history and integrity.  BB&R has extensive wine holdings and conducts all sorts of wine classes and tastings in its cellars.

“Working with Virgin Atlantic has been a very good association for us,” said the dapper Mark Pardoe as we poured through the wines in the very cold cellar.   He discussed the tendencies of wines selected to be served aboard “Upper Class,” considered Premium Business Class service on Virgin Atlantic.

“Most importantly, the wine needs to exhibit as much vitality, energy in the air as on the ground.  It can’t be dead,” said Pardoe.   This means that wines served on planes need to be expressive, somewhat big and flavorful, not nuanced.  In the air, everything is subtracted; flavor profiles, tannins and acid perceptibly are reduced for our high flying palates.  This means that certain elegant wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Oregon, and Italian Brunellos for instance, while gorgeous on the ground, might not show themselves properly in the air.  It wouldn’t be the right fit.  Not surprisingly, budget is an important concern for an airline’s wine program, and Virgin Atlantic is no exception.  The experts who select the wines to be served onboard, like Pardoe, shoot for a variety of approachable styles as well as seeking out and presenting up and coming, lesser known or undervalued appellations.

Most planes, sigh, for reasons of cost, lack of storage space or security, don’t carry proper stemware. Actually weight too is another important and ever-present concern for airlines and today more and more wines are starting to appear onboard in plastic containers.  Sure, these containers don’t look or feel as great as impressive heavy bottles, but for an airline, every extra pound translates into added fuel – and cost.  “Plastic liters bottles offer incredible weight savings which are critical for airlines,” said Pardoe.  “Some of these are hugely successful such as some inexpensive Spanish wines.  Next month we’ll have two Aussie wines in plastic bottles.  In the end it’s 5-10% cheaper than glass.”  (Interestingly, these wines are shipped in giant tankers from Australia to Bordeaux where they are bottled in a special French plastic wine bottling line.)  I sampled and enjoyed the 2009 La Rosa Tempranillo, from Spain, straight from its plastic bottle.  The wine was relatively simple, strong but unobjectionable.  The plastic bottle was a non-factor in the appreciation of this Tempranillo.

09 New Upper Class Suite
If you find a wine that knocks your socks off on a flight, well…great!  That means that the airline’s wine specialists have done their jobs well.  However you should be aware that you may not always be able to purchase the exact wine at your local wine shop or store.  Some of the wines onboard are special proprietary blends crafted especially for the airline and at other times may be entirely sold out.  Plus the onboard environmental factors discussed certainly will have changed when you pop that cork at home.  Better yet, when you find something you really like, note the varietal, region, and style (light, acidic, oaky, fruity etc.) so you can find something similar at home.

Remember, when flying, even more than on the ground, dehydration becomes a huge issue.  Keep your fluids up and drink plenty of water.  (I try and match one glass of water per glass of wine)  So – when you’re traveling on business, commuting, or on vacation to an exotic location, will the wines taste better…or worse?  “A person’s emotional and environmental factors tend to combine at altitude more acutely than on the ground,” said Mark Pardoe.  Raise a glass and toast your seatmates across the aisle, knowing that your wine in the sky has been thoughtfully chosen just for you.