So you’re settled comfortably in your first- or business-class seat high in the air, and a stewardess’ gentle voice chimes: “May I offer you something to drink?” If you’re travelling with a leading airline, expect nothing less than top-tier wine or champagne. At a time when more airlines are cutting corners to save costs, one thing they won’t stint on is wine, said USA Today in a recent report, adding that airlines around the world buy millions of litres of wine each year.

Along with multi-functional seats, in-flight entertainment systems and celebrity- chef culinary creations, a menu of top wines adds to the passenger experience. And the investment is worth it because it helps airlines foster loyalty among higher-paying and more profitable customers – first- and business-class travellers, the report noted.

To up the ante on getting better wine lists on board, airlines hire masters of wine and sommeliers to select their quaffs. For instance, Singapore Airlines (SIA) has an active panel of wine experts, with Michael Hill-Smith and Steven Spurrier having given stalwart advice for more than 20 years. The most recent addition to the SIA panel is wine master Jeannie Cho Lee, who adds an Asian perspective to selections.

The panel conducts two blind tastings a year of up to 1,000 bottles of wine of all styles, including champagne and port.

Master selectors
Another example: In 1995, British Airways (BA) invited British wine master and well-known columnist Jancis Robinson to join its expert team that included wine luminary Hugh Johnson and fellow wine masters Michael Broadbent and Colin Anderson. Robinson was a wine consultant for BA for 15 years, until 2010.

“The modern airline passenger is very, very food- and wine-savvy,” Ken Chase, American Airlines’ wine consultant, told USA Today. “To match the demand of customers being thirsty and knowledgeable, we have to deliver.”

The usual criteria for selecting high-quality wines apply, but additional factors need to be considered – the most crucial being that people’s palates change at high altitudes. The low humidity in the cabin lessens your ability to smell food and wine.

”Wines do taste different, due to dry cabin conditions,” says Hill-Smith. “Wines that have a purity of fruit expression, vibrancy and vigour tend to fare better than wines that are excessively tannic or are closed aromatically.”

Says Robinson: “We always looked for wines that were a bit more obvious than the average as we were aware that, in the air, our palates are not as sensitive as on the ground.”

Wines are generally served at a cooler temperature during flight. Robinson says that wines without too much tannins are preferable as the dry cabin air can make wines taste more astringent.

Wine Showcase
With limited cabin space and weight restrictions, one would imagine that bottle shape and weight would be issues. In fact, these are not considerations, although Air New Zealand lists only wines with a screw cap, with the exception of sparkling wines.

For wine-producing nations, an airline wine list is a great way to showcase some of their top producers. For example, Air New Zealand is the largest single server of New Zealand wines, providing its customers with 6.5 million glasses per year. With the exception of champagne, it has a policy of serving only New Zealand wines on its flights.

Qantas Airlines sources from 150 producers a year, including Margaret River’s Leeuwin Estate. The London-based publication Business Traveller’s Cellars In The Sky recently awarded Qantas for Best First Class White Wine, for serving Leeuwin Estate’s 2009 Art Series Chardonnay.

Margaret River’s Flametree Wines have been a popular choice in business class on Qantas, particularly the cabernet merlot, both on domestic and international routes.

Different wines can be selected for different flight routes. Stefan Loe, SIA’s assistant manager of public affairs, says that “the preferences of our customers are different, so we strive to serve wines that have proven popular on certain routes”.

For example, on services between Singapore and the US, Californian cabernet sauvignon is available in lieu of the Australian shiraz offered on routes to Australia, but bordeaux is available on all SIA flights.

Publicity Coup
The quantities of wine consumed are not insignificant. Each year, SIA serves up more than $6 million worth of Dom Perignon and more than $4 million worth of Krug Grande Cuvee.

And, from October 2014, SIA is offering business-class passengers a first-class bubbly – Taittinger Prelude Grands Crus Cuvee. The dry, medium-bodied champagne’s silkier citrusy and peach flavours won’t diminish with altitude.

For larger producers, supply is rarely a problem. Nonetheless, if wines by smaller producers are listed, they are required to set aside stock that the airline will draw upon when required.

Inevitably, competitive supply prices that are negotiated may not always prove profitable. However, producers consider the opportunity to highlight their wines in first or business class a publicity coup.

Simone Furlong, director of marketing at Leeuwin Estate, notes: “It is always wonderful to hear positive feedback from people enjoying our wines in-flight and a tremendous credit to airlines for focusing so diligently on sourcing and serving quality wines.”

BA’s Peter Nixson once called the process of creating an in-flight wine list “a logistical nightmare”. He likens it to “buying for a chain of restaurants that won’t stay in one place”.

So, when next you fly, spare a thought for all the effort that has gone into the wine selection on board – and drink up, as any opened bottles will only be poured away prior to landing.