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You beat the traffic. Queued up and checked in. Cleared security. Polished off that business plan in the lounge. Endured a delay on the tarmac. But then finally up up up into the air you went — across a mental finish line where a nice glass of wine is your reward.
There are times when almost any old (or not so old) vin de table will do. Then there are days when you want something to grace the tray table in front of you that you probably won’t find at Trader Joe’s. Fortunately, in many cases today, you’re in luck.
In a bid to promote customer loyalty — and in many cases to showcase a country’s homegrown vintages (think Spain, Australia, New Zealand) — many airlines have invested a lot in their wine programs.
Take Emirates, which says it poured $147 million into its wine and spirits program in 2017/18, working directly with top vineyards around the world. In France alone last year, Emirates purchased $100 million worth of wines and champagne, which the airline says works out to over 80 kinds of champagne, wine and port offered daily.
“Some of these wines are not available to buy even if you wanted to,” said a spokesperson for the airline.
Airlines are reluctant to quote prices when boasting about the contents of their sky cellars, preferring instead to let the labels speak for themselves. Aboard Cathay Pacific, for example, “First Class passengers can enjoy a collection of premium wine served on a rotation basis, which includes Chateau Lynch-Bages 2008, Chateau Montrose 2005 and Chateau Branaire-Ducru 2012,” said Cissy Ho, the airline’s corporate affairs manager.
It is also worth noting that some airlines, like Delta, have a great range of wine offerings that aren’t necessarily the most expensive but stand out in other ways. In Delta One, for example, you will find wines of outstanding American and international provenance as well as innovative additions. Later this year, for example, there will be two selections from Brown Estate, Napa’s first and only black-owned estate and winery.
Still, we can get a fairly clear picture of the most expensive wines offered on high by comparing a cross-section of international carriers’ listed offerings with their going market value. So in the spirit of a little frivolity, here are some examples of the most expensive wines in the sky right now:
At the heart of Emirates’ wine strategy is its unique approach to purchasing exceptional vintages en primeur, which means years before they are released to the market, and then allowing these wines to mature before serving them on board, the spokesperson said. Those prestigious offerings are network-wide, meaning that premium vintages are even being poured on some international regional flights, such as Dubai to Mumbai, where you can expect the likes of a $400-plus bottle of grand cru chardonnay (it’s Batard Montrachet Domaine Olivier Leflaive, in case you’re curious) in First. Château La Mission Haut-Brion, a voluptuous ruby of a Bordeaux, could cost $700 a bottle if you’re looking at the 1990 vintage, while the vintage from 2004 which Emirates will feature as part of its Vintage Collection on Australasia and some Asia routes starting in April still commands a price north of $200. Ditto for Château Montrose 2005. Pricey vintages plucked from Emirates’ own cellar in Burgundy last year included Château Margaux 1998 and Château Mouton Rothschild 2001, the latter which could command a price of around $520 a bottle.
Throughout 2019, Emirates also will be serving the 2008 vintage of Dom Pérignon Champagne, which retails for about $166 a bottle. Served on some routes this year is the rare Klein Constantia Vin de Constance, a famous sweet South African vintage said to have been sipped by Napoleon and Queen Victoria, which has citrusy, flowery notes and goes for around $100 a bottle.
On Emirates as with many airlines, each route has different wine offerings across different cabin classes.
France’s flag carrier updates its wine list every two months and as for Champagne, in La Première it’s offered à la coupe — by the glass. You can expect the likes of Bollinger 2004 – La Grande Année (retail value around $200 a bottle) or Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Alexandra Rose 1998, a Champagne which can fetch a price of $418 per bottle or more.
In Lufthansa’s First Class, noted for its food, Dom Pérignon P2 “Plenitude” Champagne, which on the ground retails for north of $400 a bottle, has made appearances.
While Australia’s flag carrier naturally invests in and showcases excellent Aussie vintages, you could also be served a coupe of Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill Champagne, a 2004 bottle of which has a retail value tickling the $300 mark.
If you like your Bordeaux red with a Chateau Leoville Poyferre label on it, you’re in luck because so does Qatar Airways. On the ground, expect to cough up $300 a bottle for the fruity elixir. Expect myriad premium pours in First Class as well as Business Class aboard Qatar.
Air New Zealand
On the ground, the luscious Cuvée Rosé champagne from Laurent-Perrier the airline serves (among numerous great Kiwi vintages) in its Business Class cabin — Air New Zealand does not have First Class — goes for around $100 a bottle.
The aforementioned Chateau Lynch-Bages 2008, Chateau Montrose 2005 and Chateau Branaire-Ducru 2012 vintages each retail for around a not terribly sky-high $100, but could actually be easier to find up in Cathay’s little piece of the sky — in First Class, that is.
A bottle of Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 2006 such as you might encounter in EVA Air’s Royal Laurel Class and Premium Laurel Class goes for around $169 a bottle. Less expensive, but no less delicious, is a Rioja San Vicente 2008.
The Japanese flag carrier has served the pricey Salon Blanc de Blancs Le Mesnil 2002 in First Class on some routes (it normally retails for about $450 a bottle) as well as Louis Roederer Cristal 2009, which goes for around $215 a bottle.
Krug Grande Cuvée NV has been poured on board, and can retail for upwards of $225 a bottle.
Pouilly-Fuissé Vieilles Vignes 2012 Domaine Pierre Vessigaud, a white wine that can fetch upwards of $228 on the ground, has been served in BA’s A380 First Class. Also available, Chateau Cantermerle 2008, 5eme Grand Cru Classe Haut-Medoc, a ravishing Bordeaux with roots that go back to 1354 and that can go for as much as $515 a bottle.
The Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque poured in Korean’s First Class can retail for around $140 a bottle.
Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 2000 is among the airline’s choice First Class pours; one bottle is worth in the range of $195 to $218.
Wine selections, of course, are subject to change as much as the non-alcoholic items (i.e. food) on your in-flight menu. At the end of the day, you’re talking about an agricultural product: grapes aren’t cutlery. As Wine Enthusiast magazine has noted, “selecting wines for an airline program is a monumental task, and each carrier employs a different methodology;” in addition, “most programs adhere to strict volume and budget constraints.” That said, there are the cases where it seems like expense is certainly no impediment to procuring amazing and pricey pours.
But remember that money isn’t everything. Just as some airlines are ready to give you a regional foodie fix, so too are they eager to showcase what their local grapes can do. That bottle of red Valduero 22 Meses 2010 may go for less than triple digits on the ground, but when Iberia serves a vintage like that in Business Plus, it’s, well … nice. And chances are you won’t find W Moschato, a full-bodied, “explosive on the nose” organic Greek white, on any airline besides Aegean, or Prosecco Brut Millesimato anywhere in the sky other than Alitalia’s Magnifica cabin.
Finally, let no airborne oenophile forget that for one flag carrier, Champagne is locavore: On Air France long haul flights, there is still (ooh la la!) free Champagne served in economy!
Featured image of Gulf Air business class wine and nuts on a Boeing 787-9 by JT Genter/TPG
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