Which airline has the best wine list? This frequent flyer weighs in

Here’s this week’s question: how do you choose which airline you’re going to fly? For the majority, I suspect price is the deciding factor, closely followed by efficiency of route: saving a couple of thousand rand may well appeal, until you discover you that your trip to London involves a six-hour layover in Syria. More frequent fliers may be directed by the allure of air miles (apparently there are recorded instances of people actually being able to use them, although not by anyone I know personally); or you may have a more abstract motivation – given the choice, my five-year-old daughter would only fly on aeroplanes that are pink and sparkly. I spend an inordinate amount of time flying, and the reasons above relate to a lot of my choices, along with client preferences – but there’s one other extremely important factor that should dictate your choice of airline: the on-board wine list.

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There’s an art to drinking wine on long-haul flights. A glass in the lounge pre-departure, and then a few over dinner, can make for a relatively peaceful evening, provided you’re interspersing them with plenty of water. Over-indulge, however, and you’ll have a restless night, and fairly miserable morning when you touch down (especially if it’s in the pouring rain of a British summer). Striking a balance is key; so, too, is choosing the airline that will ensure the best possible selection for your two or three glasses on board.

I’m a fairly regular passenger on South African Airways, a confession I make knowing full well that it’ll get a poor reception. But I’ve found the staff to be some of the friendliest I’ve encountered on board; the new A330 to London offers exceptional space and comfort; and, most importantly, an entirely South African wine list offers a terrific showcase for the local industry to thousands of international tourists every week.

And while some of the selections each month are a little odd and play off tourist-friendly aesthetic rather than wine calibre, it’s still an excellent platform for South African wine. Cue July’s wine list: Stellenrust’s old bush vine sauvignon blanc – fresh, crisp and not too acidic; Villiera’s Down To Earth sauvignon blanc/semillon blend – perfect for pepping up the inevitable chicken dish on the menu; Survivor’s cabernet sauvignon – a smooth, rich red with the chocolate and leather hints that sit so well with a strong red wine; and a Boplaas Cape Vintage (South Africa’s improvement on port) that sweeps down a cheese plate magnificently.

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That’s four glasses, but they’re small ones on board, and much as South Africans who move to Perth or Auckland suddenly feel compelled to eat Mrs. Ball’s chutney and NikNaks, so I love celebrating South African wine when travelling. But I’m also a huge fan of sampling local fare while abroad: cue a flight on Turkish Airlines last month, and the discovery that, much like Greek wine, the Turks have raised the quality of their produce significantly. Throw in exceptional service (especially with kids), and a brilliant air safety video with the cast of the Lego movie, and Istanbul as a hub is most attractive.

Qantas offers a strong selection of Australian wine, as well as some of the best food in the skies. Air New Zealand ticks the same boxes, with Kiwi pinot noir as the star attraction; Air France pays tribute to a rich wine heritage with a nice selection; and my last couple of flights on Lufthansa and Swiss have introduced me to some German and Swiss wine that took me pleasantly by surprise. And on recent British Airways flights to and from Johannesburg, a couple of South African additions to the wine list were welcome celebrations – including the Swartland Granite Rock blend, a delightful coming together of shiraz, mourvédre, carignan, grenache and cinsaut.

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But if I had to take one airline based on its wine list, I’d have to opt for Emirates. Aside from a wonderful (if very dangerous) bar on the A380, and showers, and lounges in Dubai with their own wine shops, the wine list is consistently superb. On recent flights I’ve had the exceptional Gravel Hill from Hartenberg (which stood up comfortably to a 2001 Mouton Rothschild), Ken Forrester’s world class FMC and, last week, the Métis sauvignon blanc from Klein Constantia, and Vilafonte’s Seriously Old Dirt, a second label many premium offerings strive to match. So, SAA for the all-South African wine list, but Emirates for the rounded international selection, and an exceptional flying experience.

What I’m drinking this week: I’m still recovering from last week’s rice whisky in Laos, but snuck in a few glasses of Ernie Els’s 2016 cabernet sauvignon, mostly to survive 70 manic toddlers at a birthday party. With the renovations finishing later this year, the purchase of Stellenzicht expanding the property, and Louis Strydom continuing to weave magic in the cellar, these are exciting times for Ernie Els – and the latest wave of red wine is a reminder of just what an exceptional part of the world it is for producing the estate’s assorted reds.

Want to see what else Dan Nicholl has been drinking? Watch his latest episode of Dan Really Likes Wine