Which Airlines Serve The Best Wine, In The Air And On The Ground?

Air France does a nice job generally selecting its business class wines. Their customers expect it. But budgets are still constrained in business class, both in the air and on the ground.

So I was shocked when a reader spotted a single bottle of 2011 Chateau Branaire Ducru St. Julien in their Paris Charles de Gaulle Terminal 2E Hall M business lounge. Wow. It turned out to be the last or only bottle they had, and he finished it off for them.

Just saw a customer in the flagship AF lounge at CDG take a spoon in a communal salad dressing, taste the dressing and put the spoon back in the dressing.

…And then Air France just casually dumps one bottle of this at the lounge. Only one bottle.

A proper Grand Cru in a business lounge seems like a mistake, or maybe leftovers from the prior day’s allotment in the La Premiere lounge?

Who Serves The Best Wine, And Whose Program Is Worst?

Qantas served Penfolds Grange in their Sydney and Melbourne first class lounges for the holidays, restricted to Airbus A380 first class as well as Platinum One and Chairmans Club members. That’s the best wine I’ve ever known to be served in a lounge, with the lucky passengers being served the 1997 and 2007 vintages.

The best wine I’ve ever had in a business lounge was in Air Canada’s Vancouver Signature Suite in 2022 where they were serving an Italian Petite Verdot (2012 Domodimonti Passione e Visione) that had been laying down for 3 years because of the pandemic so it was perfectly paired with the tomahawk steak. Usually business class wines are all about scale, what the airline can source at a high volume, consumed (too) quickly.

Meanwhile, for the next several months American Airlines has even dropped wine lists from their business class cabins inviting customers “to engage with…flight attendants to learn more about the selection of wines available for your enjoyment.” Flying to and from Sydney in first class last summer they didn’t even have an Australian wine on board either flight and their Chardonnay was an $8 bottle.

In general my favorite wine programs are Singapore’s (very thoughtful and route-specific selections), Emirates (luxury investment), and Qantas (for a good Shiraz). A lot of airlines serve prestige champagnes, but I’ve never seen anyone but Emirates serve Chateau d’Yquem.

In business class, surely Qatar Airways is tops back at the inflight bar on their A380? (With EVA Air giving them a run for their money at times.)

Most Passengers Don’t Know The Difference

I have to remind myself at times that much of the wine that’s being served is being served to Cort McCown’s character Quint in 1987’s Can’t Buy Me Love trying to impress a girl with his wine knowledge.

Quint: I’ve learned to appreciate the finer things in life. I even travel with my own wine. You never know the quality you may encounter at a soiree.

Fran: [smells the wine and coughs] Very classy.

Quint: [takes a swig out of the wine bottle] Mm-hmm. I’m into class. It’s my new thing.

Even though most people don’t know very much about wine they think of it as a luxury good. Delta years ago made a point of avoiding bottles that are priced too inexpensively at retail (lest people think they’re low quality, regardless of taste) and that had too unsophisticated a label. That no longer seems to be the strategy at all, since I’ve seen them serving $5 bottles.

Wine Tastes Different In The Air

Back when Ken Chase was selecting wines for American his approach was to select ‘fruit bombs’ – very fruit forward wines that will maintain their character in the air. Many subtle wines, great wines, simply don’t taste special in the air and aren’t worth the cost.

Even the most knowledgeable sommeliers are constrained by:

  • the airline’s budget
  • sourcing and distribution they have to buy in significant volume and locate bottles around the system

Singapore has a unique approach. They have a pressurized tasting room. Normally taste tests of wine and picking what people like doesn’t help, since it doesn’t match how those wines will taste in the air. Singapore has designed the conditions on the ground to be able to taste things closer to actual flight conditions. Dry cabin air, pressurized to 6,000 or 8,000 feet, you’re going to feel parched.

What Works Best At Altitude

I’m often served red wines too cold, which mitigates their fruit and highlights their acidity. If you are served red cold (a little chill is usually fine and even desirable) wait to drink it or cup the glass in your hands to warm. Fruit forward Pinots work well. I find that champagne in the air comes closest to offering the same experience as on the ground.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. Air France is a weird airline. Lousy intra-Europe business-class hard product. Yet, they serve a generally edible meal with hot bread, real champagne and decent red and white wines on 1-hour flights between London and Paris. By contrast, KLM, which is part of the same airline parent company as Air France, serves awful food intra-Europe, has prison or hospital cafeteria food in its lounges, and cheap 3-4 euros wine.

    Outside of Singapore, it’s ironic that airlines from Islamic countries tend to have the best wine of any airline.

  2. First Class is beyond my pay grade (I’d rather buy the wine instead of the ticket) but I don’t see the point of fine wine in Biz. The food, even if it’s good, is not served in a conducive fashion and the ambiance is terrible. You’re separated from your partner and can’t chat easily and linger. So, even if you can appreciate the subtleties of a good wine, you won’t get much out of it. Better just to serve a choice of tasty and smooth wines and be done with it. Of course, if you keep the choice secret, then it’s no choice at all and you might as well be in the back.

  3. On a (somewhat) serious note, back in the 19’70s, TWA used to serve Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon, BUT…the airline insist it be bottled with screw caps. (I remember how surprised I was to see our Cab going into screw caps!) This had nothing to do with the TSA’s ban on bringing corkscrews in your carry-on, and — apparently — everything to do with management feeling FA’s were incompetent with corks. [Insert “rolling eyes” emoji here.]

    l will admit that I have yet to experience Emirates or Singapore in F. But in terms of flying Business or even Economy, airlines like TAP, Iberia and Air France — even BA — offer much better wines than do AA, DL, or UA…even though those wines are very inexpensive.

  4. Somm reporting for duty…

    Fruit bombs are a good pick because they’re crowd pleasers and actual wine snobs simply don’t expect to find wines that will actually excite them on board — they’re generally produced in too small of quantities to be possible (other than Champagne). Bordeaux could be a potential fit for lounges since they’re widely distributed and you can get legitimately excellent wine for $30-50/btl. The problem is going to be that the wine will be bone dry and pretty well structured, so at altitude with dry air, it’s likely to taste like taking a bite out of a tree.

    Champagne is the best bet because it’s recognizable, available at scale, and can be pleasant on board. Still, I’d suggest airlines buy higher dosage wines (brut and above), and more oxidative pinot-heavy Champagnes vs more mineral driven or extra brut/brut nature wines.

    Stickies (sweet wines) are also a good pick for largely the same reason. D’yquem is source-able in large quantity and very recognizable, but you can get very. high quality Sauternes, Tokaji, etc for pretty reasonable prices.

  5. AF La Premiere onboard and on the ground in their CDG lounge by gar

    The old Alitalia had a great wine program

  6. Delta’s latest intercontinental business class menu includes a few surprisingly upscale options, e.g., a $50 Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

  7. Had a rather nondescript wine on board recently that was helpfully marked “gluten free” on the label. OK, unlike my usual high gluten wines…..

  8. The only airlines that seem to care are AF, QR, and EK. KL just serves whatever’s picked up from the Western Cape. I would think that AF’s champagne would be a crowd pleaser. I don’t recall seeing any fine wine at CDG AF lounge, I never got past the big champagne bowl.

    Otherwise, all wine served by airlines is a joke. May as well be wine coolers or Night Train or whatever comes in a colorful childish label.

  9. Circa 1998, a colleague of mine and I were traveling around Asia on business. We were flying Singapore Airlines on a relatively short route (business class, probably a 737 or equivalent) and the wine being served was a Cos d’Estournel. Was fantastic…and we didn’t arrive at our destination in the fighting shape I’m sure our employer envisioned.

  10. Reminded me of this silliness…

    Adventure seeker and Napa Valley wine consultant James Cluer is a Master of Wine—an elite British certification obtained by fewer than 400 people since its 1953 inception. Last year, Cluer was tasked to help curate the in-flight wine list for Qatar Airways and decided to go the extra mile: examining how his selections tasted at the top of the world. The adventurer climbed the 19,331-foot Mount Kilimanjaro with nine bottles, including Taittinger rosé champagne and 40-year-old port, to taste them close to where a plane would fly. With the release of his short film Kilimanjaro: A Peak Tasting (see below), Cluer tells us what he’s learned.


  11. It’s amusing to see so many experts in wine and fine food with such high personal standards yet are the same ones shopping for the absolute cheapest business class tickets or gaming the system for free upgrades and bring your misbehaving children into the front cabin then complain about absolutely everything about flying. And not meeting your standards.

    I sit next to you on flights and hear your boorish comments

  12. One frustrating pattern I see is for airlibes to offer a decent champagne, but then serve $10 bottles of red. It seems they really do assume passengers don’t know what they’re drinking beyond the label.

    I’d much rather see a nice Cremant and a more well-rounded selection elsewhere.

  13. My BC and FC wine experiences have been with AA, HA, UA, LH, OS. Out of these, none have been in the premium category that Gary describes. OS does serve some interesting wines in their BC. Sure wish that the FAs on US Air carriers would stop referring to prosecco or any wine with bubbles as ‘Champagne’ – it’s not!

  14. Chris F…you made me laugh out loud with that comment…”and we didn’t arrive at our destination in the fighting shape I’m sure our employer envisioned.” hahahahaha

  15. @Bill, the interior of the aircraft is pressurized to 6-8000 feet, with oxygen levels comparable to sea level, so dragging 9 bottles to 19,000+ feet would offer no value to determine how they tasted on an airplane.

  16. Emirates, in both the Business Class cabin and in their Sydney Airport lounge serve some high quality wines.
    The Cloudy Bay Pinot (self-served in the Lounge) is a fine example of NZ Pinot’s whilst onboard, the Penfolds Bin 28 Shiraz always pleases.
    FYI – I was at a Penfolds “blind tasting” and thought that the Bin 28 tasted better than the Grange. I guess every bottle of wine has its own life….
    Sometimes, in the Emirates A380 Bar, if you ask “nicely”, the hostie will grab a leftover half full bottle designated for First Class passengers.

  17. AF always had the best meals and wine, even in economy.

    I was once served Dom on a short EK flight (I normally avoid bubbles but hey, how often do I see Dom gratis). They offered me another glass when I exited. When I inquired they said “sir you are the only one drinking” (this being 4am in the Middle East)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *