Wine doesn’t taste the same inflight. Here’s how to make it better.
Frequent flyers eagerly listen for the pilot’s words: “We’ve leveled off at our flying altitude and our beverage service is about begin.” This usually means several things: you can now go to the bathroom, inflight wifi will work better and you’re able to get a glass of wine (free if in premium and $8 if not).
Whatever wine you choose from the vast array of one red, one white and lately one rosé, you’ll notice that at 30,000’ it just doesn’t taste the same. Here’s why and what to do:
The cabin: We’ve all heard that the air in the cabin is stale and recycled. Let’s bust that myth now. Cabin air is exchanged throughout the flight with outside air. The outside air is bone dry and frigid, so before it enters the cabin it’s run through humidifiers and slightly heated. But even with the humidification, it’s still quite dry.
And, the point would be? This inside/outside exchange of dry air means that we will get dehydrated. This dehydration causes us to taste the wine differently. So, how do we “taste” wine?
Aroma: It’s how we perceive taste. We rely on our nose to pick up the aromas of wine and food which helps create the taste – why when we have a cold or allergy we can neither smell nor taste.
Flavor: We taste via the “taste buds”, called lingual papillae on our tongues. These “buds” telegraph sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. Umami is mostly described as savory or meat-like. Think of soy sauce, chicken or beef bouillon.
Now combine these two sensations of aroma and taste. The aromas wind through your nose, coming to rest with the quite fabulous olfactory epithelium organ. What we think of as taste and taste memory is actually happening here, just above our sinuses.
Here’s an example. You’ve experienced walking into a room and the smells immediately remind you of a place and a time, or identify for you what the area is, a gym, hospital, library – that’s the “memory” part of the olfactory.
It’s why the aroma of a California Chardonnay reminds you of tropical fruits, banana and citrus or a Sangiovese, tart cherries. It’s also why a certain wine invokes where you were, who you were with, what you ate and what you talked about the last time you drank the wine.
If not for this olfactory organ, which perceives millions of aromas – and is trainable – we’d only be able to identify on our tongues the sweet, sour, salt, bitter tastes, like when we have a cold.
At 30,000’ we are dehydrated. Dehydration affects the olfactory epithelium’s abilities to function well and its super ability to distinguish smells is compromised.
Now, let’s factor in stress, mood, crowding, fatigue, the child kicking the back of your seat and engine noise. All of this affects our abilities to smell and to taste.
Then there’s the vessel in which the wine is served. In the front section you get glass. Starting at row 5 or so, in back, it’s (gasp!) plastic. Even in premium class glass is a problem since it’s so small you can hardly get your schnoz into the glass again which cuts down on the aroma factor. Some airlines recognize this and in premium are switching to the larger, stemless wine tasting glasses.
None of this means ordering a diet soda just for taste. Airlines are aware of the dehydration dilemma and counter by offering wines with youthful, fruity and bold flavors such as a California Chardonnay, Australian Shiraz, Pinot Noir, and Malbec. Spanish Rioja wines also do well in older vintages (found in premium class).
- Two wines perfectly matched for altitude are sparkling and rosé. Sparkling, because it’s bubbly, helps carry aromas. Fun factoid: Sparkling on land is bottled under immense pressure (5 atmospheres), but the sparkling that will be loaded onto your flight is done at lower pressure to compensate for cabin pressure. The only time this would be an inflight issue is if the cabin pressure suddenly dropped. At the same moment the oxygen masks were deploying, the sparkling wine corks in the galley would start exploding. A scene like that should have been included in the film, Airplane. Rosé works because it is a step up from a less flavorful white and doesn’t contain the tannin of red wine.
- Drink a glass or two of water before your wine. The additional hydration will help the wine taste better.
- If you want a beverage that will be least affected inflight, try a Bloody Mary or Virgin Mary. The umami factor in tomato juice helps make this a very satisfying alternative to wine. And, a squeeze of lemon perks it up even more.
- The lower oxygen in the cabin, cabin pressure and dehydration can cause the alcohol to affect you more quickly. Counter that by drinking lots of water and drinking in moderation.
Now that you understand how the airplane cabin and pressure affect the taste of wine, you’re one up on the others and know what to choose in order to truly enjoy a glass of wine on your next flight. And, unless the cabin pressure suddenly drops, you won’t have to dodge the flying corks of exploding sparkling wine bottles!
Stacie Hunt, Certified Silver Pin Sommelier, AIS.
Images courtesy: KLM.com, JetBlue,com, AviationWeek.com, TheIndependent.uk