The Opera House on Place de la Comédie, Bordeaux

The Paris to Bordeaux flight on Air France is an excursion into a lifestyle. Passengers generally appear trim, fit and polite. They are cordial rather than effusive; graciously calm instead of overly animated. Their attire is lean, not bulky; elegant, not flamboyant. Any casual (never gaudy) passenger may sport an earring, a glinting watch or a leather satchel that signals inconspicuous and unobtrusive wealth. Most wear tight, thin layers in subdued shades of gray or black or tan (with an odd splash of red or yellow on a kerchief): a snug buttoned vest, a thin winter jacket, a business suit that appears more Zurich than Dallas; a daypack more Milanese chic than Barcelona summer.

The Seine River and Notre Dame, Paris

Even younger passengers, giddy with sexual tension, touch rather than fondle, laugh instead of cackle. Their tattoos are likely more Celtic pattern than Marvel comic character. Footwear, like clothing, is prim and functional—designed to walk city streets instead of stomp coastal pathways.

Bordeaux at night

Hand luggage is slipped (never shoved) into overhead compartments. It is compact and sleek, never sloppy or loud. Some bags have bright colors: token garnish beside more modestly hued main dishes.

Darwin, Bordeaux

This overall flight experience is slim and taut. Narrow, like the plane. Professionals travel light; passengers returning home appear modest and calm. At the end of this sleek and rapid aerial transect of France you look down through the window at the sight of the muddy, meandering Garonne River below. It snakes across a plain pitted with vineyards and farms and tame rural enclaves outside Bordeaux—the gorgeous stone city without skyscrapers.

Grand Hotel, Bordeaux – opposite the Opera House

The view will take you back into the ordered courtliness of 11th century Aquitaine, a land ruled by a woman named Eleanor, a fecund, fertile sunny domain of romance and wine and bawdy chivalry. Rather than hold the title Queen of France, or Queen of England (she was, at different times, both) this ruler clung to her title as ‘Eleanor of Aquitaine’ because this land she ruled—the terrain between waters—was renowned as Europe’s richest in terms of wealth, agricultural bounty and progressive thinking toward love, commerce and life.

A wildly edible chocolate garden in a Bordeaux store

A drink and snack are served during the flight—a satisfying quick nibble and quaff. Eating and drinking in this land of the Gauls is enjoyed in moderation—which is why wines are 12.5 to 13.5 percent alcohol rather than booze bombs laden with gobs of fruit and tannin.

Market time

The flight takes one hour. The baggage carousel at the main airport terminal includes a few towering bottles that advertise wine. The airport garden is—of course—a vineyard.

Baggage claim, Bordeaux Merignac airport

There are no visible customs agents at the airport. Why would there be? Who would smuggle opiates into a land that oozes with oodles of excellent wine? They are there, certainly. But hidden. Inconspicuous. Unobtrusive. This is the land of the Bordelaise, where subtlety rules. Why make a fuss when you have it all?

In 1933, Air France was created from a merger of a half-dozen airlines, unions and navigation companies. It remained the French carrier until merging with KLM fifteen years ago. A year later the airline was Europe’s largest, with a quarter of the continent’s market share. (Well choreographed safety video is below.)

All wine served on Air France is French. On long haul flights even economy passengers are offered Champagne (incidentally, my friend Gabrielle Vizzavona wrote this excellent recent piece on champagnes, for Le Figaro newspaper; even if you ne parle pas Francais, just check out the names, and drool). Because aridity and air pressure on airline flights modifies our sense of taste, tannic wines are best avoided while fruity choices turn pleasant in the air (I wrote about the effects of altitude on wine in this past post).

So many choices, so little time …

Air France selects excellent food and fresh wines that will age well within the next four to six years. After Emirates, according to The Wall Street Journal, Air France pays the next highest average price per wine bottle served on its flights. This year the World of Fine Wine ranked Air France as having the Best Airline Wine List in The World.

Burgundy and Rhone wines

Air France employs Paolo Basso—voted world’s best sommelier—as a wine consultant. Earlier this year I met Paolo in Switzerland at a wine event and sampled his own wine—which is excellent. We talked about the city where he now lives—Lugano, Switzerland—where I also spent four years living in youth. He has good taste. If Paolo nods assent at a wine, I’m all for it. Even decent wine is something to appreciate during a flight. I once sat in business class on a U.S. air carrier crossing from Chicago to Los Angeles and was served a red wine that tasted more like bubble gum than a fermented fruit beverage. The event made me reconsider the worth of accruing air miles with that company.

Bordeaux wine

Still, integral to the French culture, employees of Air France sometimes strike. This past summer the airline was sporadically on strike for months during the same time that the national rail service—SNCF—went on strike. Even after that ended I arrived at Bordeaux airport one day to learn that air traffic controllers had gone on a sudden one-hour strike during lunch hours. One hour! Perhaps they needed more time to finish their crème brûlée. Still, no harm. The upstairs restaurant was open. I scooted inside and sat. Their wine list? Splendid. One hour with a good meal and a bottle of Bordeaux was the right way to kick off a day of travel.

Airport waiting time

Thanks for tuning in. Next month’s Forbes articles will tell of a four-year ocean expedition promoting technology that converts plastic into energy. It will also foray into the world of high-end watches, as well as Swedish wines.

Meanwhile, enjoy your holiday season!


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  1. Friend Lara from South Africa wrote –

    ‘OMG love Airborne Elegance article – you write beautifully. I have been obsessed with Air France and this year loved it and mum used to be Air France Manager in Durban, so reminds me of childhood travel. Love it.’

  2. Friend Jeffrey Brash (we were in Peace Corps in Malawi together) wrote – ‘Cannot keep track of your travels…were you just in Cameroon? How was it? Did you or do you speak French? My kid just applied to study abroad….We are going on a cruise – Cozumel, Beliz – should be nice. Be well’


  3. Brother Pete from Colorado wrote – ‘Very well written and engaging!’

  4. Morgane Chambriard – a Lovely Winemaker from Beaujolais, wrote: ‘Thanks again Tom 🙂 ! ‘

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