Is it true that wine tastes worse on airplanes than on the ground?
Just about every hack comedian has a joke about airplane food. Mine is very much in the hack-wannabe category, but I like it best because it captures an often-overlooked dimension of the generally abominable inflight dining experience in coach. “Stewardess, this food is bland,” says the guy at the back after taking a bite of what appears to be chicken. To which the flight attendant responds: “Wait till you try the wine!”
For the most part, wine served in coach has long been a joke. To be fair, though, it isn’t always the wine’s fault; it’s the airplane’s. The way we perceive flavours in the sky differs from how we experience them on the ground. Mainly, aromatic intensity takes a nosedive.
The biggest culprit is dry air. Plane cabins, although pressurized, must regularly draw in fresh oxygen from the outside so that passengers don’t choke. At high altitude, air tends to be very dry, so it must be humidified before it’s dispersed into the cabin. This presents a dilemma for airlines because water is heavy and planes can’t afford to lift off with more weight than absolutely necessary. So, as a conservation measure, the cabin is intentionally kept pretty arid.
Unfortunately, dry air compromises the palate’s sensitivity – specifically a tissue called the olfactory epithelium, which permits us to distinguish thousands of aromas and flavours. (The tongue itself can only perceive basic tastes – namely bitter, sour, salty, sweet and umami.) As a result, wines that taste complex and harmonious on the ground will seem relatively dull and simple on a plane.
“Your olfactory epithelium’s sensitivity is reduced by 30 per cent when you’re up in the air,” says Carl Boucher of CBG Wine Consulting in Calgary, who, with partner Benoit Gosselin, helped revamp Canadian carrier WestJet’s on-board selections three years ago.
Less olfactory sensitivity means you’re stuck with a pretty monotonous flavour profile that accentuates the basic tongue sensations, notably bitterness, which is primarily imparted by astringent, natural compounds known as tannins, found to the highest degree in thick-skinned red grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon.
“The biggest thing I try to avoid is really tannic wines,” Boucher says. “They make your mouth really dry.”
James Cluer, a vaunted Master of Wine, former Vancouverite and owner of Napa, Calif.-based wine consulting firm Fine Vintage, Ltd., worked for 11 years as a consultant to Qatar Airways, which has won numerous best-in-world awards for its wine program. He says he would taste hundreds of bottles on the ground in Germany and then retaste his top selections in the air while flying from Germany to Qatar.
“Over the years, we started to see very distinct patterns,” he says. “Wines in the air tend to smell less intense, less strong. And that really is not the wine, it’s you – it’s the person who’s changed.” Cluer believes flying fatigue also often comes into play, diminishing sensitivity, as does the stemware, which on airplanes is rarely as well designed to capture bouquet as what wine connoisseurs tend to use at home.
He agrees that red wines tend to come across as more tannic and adds that very delicate, complex wines on the nose (think of red Burgundy, made from the delicate pinot noir grape) are harder to appreciate. Instead, he mainly recommends wines with fuller body, softer tannins and good levels of flavour intensity. Some of his most successful choices: slightly sweet Mosel riesling; New Zealand sauvignon blanc, Barossa Valley shiraz from Australia; and a great Kopke 1974 Tawny Port. The latter was “a big hit on board,” he says. “It basically has no tannins.”
For his part, Boucher also favours wines with bolder fruit. “Grenache has been my go-to, and it’s the wine that I receive the most compliments about up in the air,” he says. That red grape, most closely associated with Southern France, Spain and Australia, tends to be supple and cherry-like, with low tannins and a welcome layer of palate-awakening spice.
On the white side, Boucher particularly likes blends based on chardonnay and viognier. “Chardonnay up in the air drinks very well,” he says of the full-bodied, popular variety. While some people dislike the heavy vanillin taste of some heavier-oaked chardonnay styles, adding oily textured, spicy viognier permits winemakers to dial down the oak-barrel aging while achieving the same volume on the palate. “And if you don’t use oak, you reduce the cost,” Boucher says, which is a bonus in the slim-profit-margin airline industry.
It helps, too, that many chardonnay-viognier blends tend to be emerging from Southern France, where production costs remain low. That’s also the case with grenache in both Southern France and the grape’s neighbouring homeland of Northern Spain.
Sparkling wines present a different experience altogether. If you love bubbles, you might want to sip faster, Boucher says. Cabin air, despite partial pressurization, remains thinner at 35,000 feet than on the ground. That means bubbles in the glass tend to dissipate more quickly.
If you want proof, check out Cluer’s enjoyable video of a climb he made in 2014 to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest peak in Africa. (It’s on the Finevintageltd.com website.) He and his Sherpa amazingly haul six bottles, all selections from Qatar Airways’ business-class wine list, up the mountain to test the high-altitude sipping experience. At 5,895 metres above sea level, the peak’s air pressure is considerably lighter than even that of an airliner, which is pressurized to approximately the level of the air in Denver. As Cluer pours a rosé Champagne from Taittinger with the snowy vista behind him, it foams up like a geyser.
Moreover, sparkling wines destined for airplanes are not the same as those intended for conventional consumption. For safety reasons, they tend to be custom bottled at lower pressure to begin with. Boucher says that if the cabin were to suffer catastrophic pressure loss of the sort that would cause oxygen masks to deploy from above, the pressure differential would automatically suck the corks out with force, adding to the cabin mayhem.
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