United Airlines’ new wine offerings

First off, sorry for the long silence – I moved across the country and started a new job, and it sort of took over my life for a while. But things have (finally) settled down again, so let’s talk wine!

I’ve been a loyal United Airlines customer for over a decade, and for years – years, I tell you! – I have been complaining about their wine. Quite simply, the wines served in domestic economy – Redwood Creek California Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon – were abominable. The Chard in particular tastes like drain cleaner (well, I imagine it does; I have not done a blind tasting with drain cleaner to confirm this, but be my guest). The wines in domestic first class were better, but for a long time it was pretty much a California Chardonnay (and I like very, very few of them; they often featured the Wente Chard, of which I am not a fan) or a nondescript California red in the $15/bottle range.

The first-class wines started to improve over the past year or so as they moved away from California wines. This was a smart move – I’m not familiar with the intricacies and quirks of the wholesale market, but as a consumer who almost exclusively purchases sub-$20 wines, I generally find better values from overseas than I do from domestic wines (and I’m not talking about Yellow Tail – I mean I get better quality for my money when I buy foreign wines, all else being equal). United Domestic First currently serves an Australian Shiraz, a Chilean Chardonnay, a South African Sauvignon Blanc and a California Cabernet Sauvignon. I love this mix and thoroughly approve. But it took a while for the economy cabin to catch up.

In 2009, United introduced its Choice Menu in the economy cabin on a trial basis in certain markets. The menu featured snacks, meals and premium beverages – but no wine. Booze hounds could sample Glenlivet and Maker’s Mark, beer fans could tap Leinenkugel’s Sunset Wheat, but wine lovers riding in the back were still stuck with Redwood Creek. I bitched about it copiously on FlyerTalk.com (what is FlyerTalk for if not bitching?). It cannot be a coincidence that within a few months, United expanded the Choice Menu to all domestic mainline flights … and added premium wines. O happy day! And what wines they are. I understand that the airline is somewhat limited because economy wines come in 187ml bottles and there’s not much to choose from in that category, but I was thrilled to see they’d found something better at last. The premium wines sell for $1-$2 more than the standard economy wines, but believe me when I say it’s well worth the investment. (Bring your credit card – United only accepts credit cards for onboard purchases.) Here are the new wines:

J.P. Chenet Blanc de Blancs Brut (NV), France; 11% ABV; $8/187mls

Bottle was frozen, so may not be representative – had to sit on it! Nose has apples, bread dough, brioche, lemon. Dry and crisp with green apple, lemon curd, peach; slightly sweet finish as the bubbles fade. I wouldn’t necessarily buy this in a store or at a bar, but they could certainly have done worse. Not bad at all, and I’m thrilled to be able to order bubbly in Economy! (Note: They don’t load many bottles at this point; there were 4 loaded on my 767, and the flight attendant said passengers from first class snagged three of them before Economy service even started, so adjust your expectations accordingly.)

Cheviot Bridge Chardonnay 2008, Adelaide Hills, Australia; 14% ABV; $7/187mls

Very fruity nose – green apple, lemon curd, light touch of oak. Very citrusy up front – grapefruit, lemon blossom, lime zest – balanced by a softer touch of sweetness. Mellow spices on the midpalate: cinnamon, white pepper. It’s a Chardonnay and I don’t hate it — miracle! This makes Redwood Creek look like the cat pee it is. I love that it’s mellow without being flat and dull; there’s more complexity than you’d expect in a single-serve bottle of airline wine.

Cheviot Bridge Shiraz 2008 Southeastern Australia; $7/187mls

Very fruity nose – cherries, blackberries; hint of oak and cocoa. Nice acidity balances the fruit on the palate. Fruit makes it less astringent. Not my favorite red, but again, leaps and bounds ahead of Redwood Creek.

First class

Two Oceans Sauvignon Blanc 2008 Western Cape (South Africa)

Tart nose with a hint of sweetness, featuring orange blossoms, key lime, green apple. Clean, crisp flavors of lemon, grapefruit, minerals, slate. Really (REALLY!) happy to see a first-class wine that isn’t a California Chardonnay. Excellent choice, United.

Yali Chardonnay 2007 Maipo Valley (Chile)

Yeah, it’s a Chard, but it’s more citrusy and a lot less oaky (read: annoying) than California Chardonnay. I actually kind of like it, which rarely happens when I’m drinking Chardonnay. Very little oak (glory hallelujah!). Clean, bright, citrusy nose. Flavors of lemon meringue, lime zest, a touch of herbs; faint oak but not to an obnoxious degree. Light and crisp; an excellent choice for a diverse array of palates. Goes well with airline chicken.

Bushman’s Gully Shiraz 2008 Southeastern Australia

OK, I’m not a huge fan of this one, but Aussie Shiraz rarely wins me over. The fruity nose carries hints of cedar, blackberries, light oak and a touch of pepper. The flavor is brash, exultant, too sweet, too fruity, unbalanced – lots of overripe dark fruits. United could have done much better here; I’ve seen them serve the Trapiche Malbec from Argentina on occasion in First, and that was much more palatable to me. Then again, maybe I just don’t like Aussie Shiraz. It’s important to note that in First, they serve wine from 750ml bottles, so they’re not nearly as constrained for choice as they are in Economy, which is restricted to wines that come in 187ml bottles.

Redtree Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 California

I have yet to taste this, though it is listed as being allegedly available on some domestic first-class flights. I’ll keep an eye out. In the meantime, I’d like to state for the record that I love Redtree’s cherrylicious Pinot Noir.

Bodegas Covides Duc de Foix Brut

This appears to be exclusive to flights between the West Coast and JFK (Premium Service). I am poor and have yet to give these routes a shot.

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