Wine: Drinking at 30,000 feet

Next time the trolley comes round, ask for a high altitude wine
June 18, 2014

I recently flew to Istanbul and back on British Airways to test the flavours of food and wine at high altitude with a journalist from Women’s Health. Many factors affect the appreciation of wine at 30,000 feet but wine buyers for the airlines are becoming quite skilled at selecting those that work well in flight. How do they do it, and what are the principles underlying success and failure?

When flying at high altitude, the dry atmosphere—which greatly reduces our ability to perceive aroma—low cabin pressure, cold temperatures and vibrations mean that even the best wines may not perform as expected. In addition, recent research has demonstrated that white noise in the ears suppresses the tongue’s ability to detect basic tastes like sweet and salty. At around 80 decibels—the level of noise on board a commercial aircraft in flight—the effect on sweet and salty is quite marked. This may be one reason why passengers complain about aeroplane meals, despite the efforts some airlines have put into improving the food. The solution is to wear noise-cancelling headphones, which will do a lot to revive your plate and your wine.

But even with the headphones, wines are greatly affected by cabin pressure, as I found out when drinking the same wines in the lounge and in the air. Under low pressure the molecules are more diffuse, meaning they have less impact on the olfactory receptors in the nose. Fruitier wines tend to fare better, and the more austere, noble wines that passengers expect to find on the first class wine list may not show well at all. Firm tannins in prestige wines tend to dominate at cabin pressure, leaving them dry and fiercely bitter.

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Andy Sparrow of Bibendum wine merchants is responsible for buying wine for British Airways’ first class list. To find out which bottles worked and which didn’t, he led a long-haul tasting for wine writers. Sauvignon Blanc, with its primary aromas and fresh acidity, was favoured among the whites and you will always find it on the list of options. Many of the more sought-after wines simply failed to deliver, but to everyone’s surprise, a Malbec that people did not comment on when tasted on the ground suddenly came into its own when tasted at 30,000 feet.

What should you look for when flying? Champagnes tend to work well and so does Cava, and this may be due to the presence of carbon dioxide in the bubbles. This is a stimulant for the trigeminal nerve that serves the nose, the eyes and the mouth, and makes our nose tingle when we eat too much mustard. Trigeminal stimulation is not only immune to the effects of cabin pressure—which is why passengers often enjoy spicier food when they are flying—but it also boosts our perception of aroma. Drinking Champagne throughout the meal may help you to taste more of both.

Red wines, on the other hand remain a problem. Bitterness is accentuated at altitude, and since astringency reinforces bitterness it is best to avoid over-tannic wines. On the other hand, Malbec worked well in the long-haul study and cabin crew have reported customer satisfaction with small bottles of Malbec served in economy. What’s the explanation?

Many of Argentina’s most highly-regarded Malbecs are produced at very high altitutdes. The cabins of aeroplanes flying at 30,000 feet are pressurised as if one was at an altitude of 6,000 feet, and the famous Argentinian winemaker Nicolas Catena’s Zapata grapes are grown at 5,700 feet. Could it be that wines made at high altitude also perform better in those conditions? More testing would need to be done, but next time the trolley comes round, ask for a high altitude wine. If it works, remember you heard it here first.