Last year, Heathrow airport handled 220,000 passengers every day. With that kind of footfall, it’s little wonder Terminal Five is reputedly the most expensive retail space in the world. Flying has become increasingly routine, and with it comes the airport experience: cities in miniature, hosting a daily population larger than Portsmouth, all of whom are killing time before boarding their plane. These microcosms of society provide a valuable insight into how we interact with wine.

With this in mind, I looked into the wine retail proposition when passing through Heathrow Terminal Three recently. Almost all the wine is sold in one store, the World Duty Free megamart that is ubiquitous in airport retail. In fact, the departures journey is designed so you have to snake through all its various departments before you reach the rest of the Terminal.

The wine shelves are generally dominated by well-known brands from the biggest producers. Champagne takes up most space, indicating the importance of gifting purchases at airports. This is underlined by the selection of limited-edition bottlings and – even more importantly – special packaging. Again, the biggest brands are specialists at this, with LVMH proving its luxury credentials (and sheer marketing power) with row upon row of Dom Pérignon, Veuve Clicquot and Moët et Chandon, among others – all in increasingly fancy boxes.

Brands dominate the regular wine shelves too, with Australian producers offering the widest selection. Penfolds, Wolf Blass and Lindeman’s represent Treasury Wine Estates, Hardys is the main offering from Accolade, while Jacob’s Creek flies the flag for Pernod Ricard. There are others from around the world, of course, but the overall range is significantly more limited than the offering on most high streets – including only one single English sparkling, an exclusive blend made by Furleigh Estate called Dorset Idyll. 

The transitory nature of airports makes their wine offering more like a petrol station shop (albeit a rather upmarket one) than a supermarket. In fact, Heathrow hasn’t had a dedicated wine retailer since Berry Bros & Rudd pulled out in 2006, citing unsustainably high rent and low margins, which probably sounds wearily familiar to many a high street wine shop.

Perhaps it seems that wine retailers have little to learn from how wine is sold at airports – but it does remind us of two fundamental things that are worth remembering.

For most people, wine has a specific purpose, which has little to do with the values wine professionals ascribe to it. At the supermarket, it is bought primarily on price for casual drinking. At airports, gifting and celebration are much more important factors. Both types of purchase represent an opportunity for any wine retailer, although it’s a punishingly competitive field.

The second point is a more ruminative question: are we giving our customers the choice they really want? At Heathrow, the selection of heavily branded wines suggests a specific assumption about customer requirements. Reconsidering any such assumptions should be a fundamental part of every wine retailer’s job description.