Why do wines taste different on board a plane? It's all about the atmosphere

Years ago, I had a discussion with the wine consultant/buyer for a major airline, and he told me all about the challenges of his job.

Before you start to resent him, let me just assure you that he professed to being ensconced precisely in his dream job, a position he had wanted since he was a young man. He was working not only in the exact role he had wanted to, but also for the exact airline. Eureka! And good for him. As for those "challenges," he wasn't complaining about them - only explaining them - and, after all, I was the one asking.

He had to search the world for new winemakers to feature on his airplanes, not only to keep the wine list vital but also for economic reasons. To do this, he sometimes shoved his nose down into 200 glasses in a single day just to find a dozen or so that were worth tasting. This was because, he said, if they did not pass the sniff test, they certainly had no chance of passing the taste test. He was looking for wines that had the right stuff to perform well above the clouds, and that, he said, was his biggest challenge.

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Maybe you took a long flight this summer, what with the kids being off school and all of that vacation time you had saved up. When your dinner was in front of you and the rolling cart of drinks came your way, maybe you ordered a tiny bottle of wine (a 187.5 milliliter "split") or an actual glass poured straight from a regular-size bottle. (Hey, I don't know which airline you fly or which cabin you book your seats in.)

Did you like the wine, and if so, did you write down the name or snap a picture, and track it down when you landed? Did you still like it? If not, don't blame the airline's wine buyer. Don't even blame the wine. Blame the plane.

Think about the moment you step out of a jetway and through the rounded doorway of a commercial airplane. The atmosphere is different right away, and within moments, you can sense that it's as dry as a desert in there. The air also has a distinct staleness to it because you're in a profoundly long tube, and although there are windows everywhere, not a single one of them rolls down.

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That air is being recirculated, and it carries provocative notes of jet fuel, upholstery and carpet, all of which tend to fade the longer you spend in that tube, and maybe that's a good thing for those of us who don't particularly love those smells. But the problem is that even the stuff we do want to smell eventually fades. And when the aromas go, the flavours go too. It's all caused by your own aircraft-induced dehydration - the drying-out that afflicts you every time you go wheels-up.


You don't get entirely stripped of your ability to smell and taste, obviously (you can taste well enough to know that you're not wild about the over-salted yet still-kind-of-bland food resting on the tray in front of you), but your senses very quickly begin to operate at a fraction of their normal capacity - and they go downhill from there. You gradually lose your ability to smell and taste the subtle aromas and flavors you might have been easily able to identify and name in the most creative ways on the ground.

"Ripe blackberries, pomegranate, orange zest, white pepper, rosemary, crushed limestone, Spanish leather, midmorning coffee grounds and Christmas Eve 1983," is how you might have described a wine on earth. In the air, the closest you might come to that is, "Fruity. Grapey. Liquidy."

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So finding the right wines for dehydrated and diminished palates at 36,000 feet is key. And it's a fine line. Your dulled faculties need something bold - like a come-to-your-senses slap across the face - but they need a certain kind of bold, not just unbridled brawn and fury. They need pronounced fruit, but it should not come with a lot of tannin because the last thing your dried-out mouth needs is a wave of fuzz to suck it dry of what little moisture it had in the first place.

Your body doesn't need a boatload of alcohol, either, because remember, you're at least mildly dehydrated already. Most likely you're not going to have to make choices based on these factors because whoever chose the wine for the flight - for the airline - will have done that work for you already. Those folks know what you will be going through; it's their business.

There's no getting around the dry air or your dulled senses after you've spent even a little time in that environment. But one thing you can do to help yourself out is to stay well hydrated. Your senses of smell and taste will work just a little bit better during the flight, and your body will feel a lot better when you land.

If you stayed close to home this winter and your next sky ride lies ahead, perhaps around the holidays, keep all of this in mind. And if you come across a wine you love up there, think twice about buying a case of it when you touch down. Keep in mind that your dining room is not a pressurised cabin with flotation devices under the seats. You might have a different experience with the airline wine down here, and if you do, don't hold it against the wine. Hold it against the airplane. You think the food is bad up there? The same concepts apply. Imagine eating that stuff down here.


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