Let's Taste

Advice from a high-flying sommelier

Named “Best Sommelier in the World” in 2013, the Italian Paolo Basso has been choosing the wines served on Air France flights since 2014. Every year, the airline’s passengers drink 1.5 million bottles of wine and 750,000 bottles of champagne. This peerless oenologist takes us through the ups and downs of drinking wine at 35,000 feet.
Text Tristan de Bourbon  Icone temps de lectureEstimated reading time 4 min

What is your role with Air France?

Paolo Basso : Since 2014 I’ve been in charge of tastings to select the wines that are served to the airline's passengers. We do the whole tasting blind, meaning we only choose wines based on their quality. In first class and business class, passengers can choose between a champagne, two reds and two whites, as well as a vin doux in first class or a fortified wine in business class. We are one of the few airlines that still serve champagne in economy class. We also offer a red wine and a white wine made exclusively for Air France: I myself go to the producer to blend the wines.

Is wine-drinking affected by conditions on the plane?

PB : Two main factors influence wine-drinking in the plane's cabin. The pressure reduces our olfactory and taste perceptions. The dryness, or lack of humidity, limits our production of saliva. This means our palate has less natural lubricant than usual, so we perceive the so-called "hard" parts of a wine – the acidity and tannins – more intensely. Because of this, on Air France flights we serve wines with lower levels of tannins and acidity.

In the air, wine’s acidity and tannins are more pronounced.

Portrait de Paolo Basso - conseils d’un sommelier de haut vol

What types of wines do you offer to the airline’s passengers?

PB : We only serve French wines. It’s Air France’s choice to promote French winemakers. I support this stance: France has enough diversity and quality for us not to need to look beyond its borders. The psychological aspect is important too: when a passenger boards a plane from a wine-producing country, it's only natural that they would want to drink wine from that country. More specifically, we have a set selection: in first and business class we serve a champagne, a white Burgundy and a red Bordeaux, as well as a white and a red from other regions. To enable passengers to enjoy the variety of French wines, we try to offer a red in a very different style to that of the Bordeaux already available; perhaps from Burgundy, the Rhone Valley or Languedoc-Roussillon, for example. And of course the same is true for the second white wine.

How do older wines fare in the air?

PB : Not well. Old wines don’t do as well on flights as younger ones. Wines are a bit like us: as they age, they gain complexity, but lose their vitality. Because our perceptions are altered in the cabin, it means these wines aren’t suitable for drinking in this type of environment. So we stock wines on board that are ready for drinking but haven’t been aged for too long.

Portrait de Paolo Basso - conseils d’un sommelier de haut vol

Do you serve different wines depending on the destinations of flights?

PB : A while ago we did a trial and divided the world in half. We put more fragrant wines on flights in the east than in the west. We had interesting feedback from passengers, and so we sometimes repeat the exercise, though not on a regular basis. That’s because, logistically speaking, it’s really difficult to manage: every morning, a considerable number of planes depart from Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport. Especially for international flights, the planes must take off with the bottles they need for all of their routes until they return to France. So it’s not practically possible to adapt our logistics to the choice of wine.

All wines served on Air France flights are chosen by blind tasting

It’s not necessary for the wine to breathe for as long as you would want it to on the ground, which is lucky, because it’s not really possible.

Are there other factors that influence wine-drinking on flights?

PB : Firstly, you have to remember that it's not the sommelier of a restaurant who is managing and serving the wine, but the cabin crew on board a plane. Passenger safety is therefore their priority. Also, you don't need to let the wine breathe for as long as on the ground, which is just as well as it's not really possible. Nonetheless, we make sure the wines are served at the correct temperature, in proper glasses made of glass. Instead, passengers can now head to the new Air France business lounge at Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport, where a mixologist works behind the bar at certain times!

Portrait - Paolo Basso, Les conseils d’un sommelier de haut vol

Do you have a particular habit as a passenger?

PB : The cleanliness of glasses is checked on departure from French airports. This happens with much less regularity when departing from other countries though, as it depends on the local catering company. So for those who appreciate their wine and want to be sure of enjoying its true flavours, I recommend doing what I do every time I take a flight as a passenger: I rinse my glass out with the wine. This involves pouring a small amount of wine into the glass, then swirling it around slowly. I make sure all of the inside of the glass has been rinsed. Then I throw away the wine and ask for my glass to be filled. It’s quick and easy, and sometimes it makes a real difference!

As a passenger, I always rinse my glass with the wine before drinking it.