For most of us, a glass of wine with our meal is something to look forward to on a flight. It’s celebratory: you’ve made the flight, you’re on your way, you have few distractions, and now there’s not much else to do but relax. But you’ll have doubtless noticed that wine, like food, tastes different at altitude – and not always in a good way. The smell and flavours of wine in particular can seem oddly dulled. But why is this so?
When flying at altitude, we are in a cabin that is pressurised. The pressure maintained inside the aircraft cabin is referred to as the “equivalent effective cabin altitude” and most airlines keep their cabin altitude at 8,000ft or below, though cabin altitude is lower on new-design aircraft like the Boeing 787.
It is a commonly held belief that a change in pressure is enough to dampen our ability to taste and smell considerably, possibly by as much as one-third. To compound the problem, the air in aircraft cabins is dry. These are the two main factors, but there are others. How stressed we feel, the ambience in the cabin (invasive noise or a soothing calm), even the brightness of the lighting all have subtle, but discernible effects on how we taste wine.
Wine tasting, however, is more art than science. No two people experience wine in exactly the same way. Individuals will have differing numbers of taste buds, differing senses of smell, diverse sensitivities to particular tastes, and – perhaps most importantly of all – will make different associations with flavours and smells. This is why the Sauvignon Blanc in the glass of a British wine drinker may remind them of gooseberry bushes, but to someone growing up in another part of the world, the aromatic thiols present in the wine can smell more like passion fruit – or like cat’s pee. Your memory and experience has perhaps the greatest effect on your taste of all.
All this suggests there is not a ‘right’ kind of wine that keeps all passengers happy, especially when passengers come from different parts of the globe; preferences vary a lot with the experience and ‘sophistication’ of the wine drinker (some travellers will have had little exposure to the peculiar characteristics of some styles of wine that are considered desirable in other countries).
Yet huge amounts of wine are consumed on airlines every year, and every airline adopts a slightly different strategy to buying the ‘right’ wines for its customers. So while El Al Airlines supplies kosher wines on its routes, such wines are not a priority on most other airlines. Often, wines made in the country of the carrier feature large – so American Airlines regularly features California wines, Iberia wines from Spain, etc. The many variables make it tricky for airline wine buyers to please everyone.
ART OR SCIENCE?
I interviewed a few of the leading wine buyers for airlines to try to establish how rigorously airlines try to replicate the inflight experience when conducting wine tastings or selection. When it comes to hard facts about how our palates change in-flight, let alone how wines should be selected, the prevailing view was neatly summarised by Peter McCombie, a Master of Wine (MW). “There is very little science,” he told me. He is one the judges of the annual ‘Cellars In The Sky’ (CITS) competition, which is currently as scientific as wine tasting for airline gets (read more about CITS further down). Tim Atkin MW, also a CITS judge, agrees. “I think the evidence is mostly anecdotal. Fruity wines tend to taste better in the sky to me, as your senses are dulled (mostly dehydration), but I’m not sure if anyone has ever done any scientific research as such.” I also contacted several leading airlines, and they were also unable to give me any leads towards research into this field.
I remembered, however, that around 1993 in an early Cellars in the Sky tasting, Business Traveller magazine arranged for an airline wine tasting to be conducted in a hyperbaric chamber – that is, a pressurised cabin that can re-create inflight pressure. The former editor of WINE magazine and, before that, Business Traveller magazine (the US-circulated version of Business Traveller), Susan Low, took part in the tasting. ‘The magazine hired the hyperbaric chamber specially for the tasting, so that we could compare the wines in as ‘real-life’ a situation as possible. We assessed the wines from about a dozen airlines, to try to see exactly how the change in pressure affects wines, and how different they taste on the ground and ‘in the air’. We concluded that the wines do taste quite different – the pressure change does indeed dull the senses.”
Since then, I’ve not been able to find an airline that conducts tasting in this manner. Part of the reason is undoubtedly the cost, but there is also the problem that sitting in a hyperbaric chamber doesn’t effectively re-create the experience of an eight-hour flight. Passengers also dehydrate on flights – and the longer the flight, the more dehydrated they get, which also affects the palate.
Wine tasters conduct their tastings on the ground, at something close to sea level. Airline wine buyers therefore have to make assumptions about how wines will taste at altitude. A ‘rule of thumb’ approach is operated by many wine buyers, based on widely held assumptions of how the palate changes at altitude.
All the wine experts I spoke to made broadly similar, if imprecise, observations about drinking wines in-flight. The first is that tannic red wines that lack fruit character will taste less fruity and more tannic, so it makes sense to buy wines, which have fruitier characteristics. White wines that are high in alcohol also tend to fare badly, as do whites that are lean on fruit but with high acidity (for example, many Pinot Grigios). As a tendency, mellow, fruitier wines – both red and white – tend to do slightly better at altitude. But of course, not all passengers are professional wine tasters. “The worst wines in the air – to me, at least – are tannic ones, such as Bordeaux. But that’s what first-class passengers tend to demand,” notes Tim Atkin.
Some airlines seem to enjoy the challenge of surprising passengers though. Robert Manners, sales manager at Berry Bros & Rudd, which supply Virgin Atlantic, told me that, “The Virgin cabin crew encourage passengers to try something quirky. For example, we have supplied them with a Slovenian sauvignon blanc, a Brazilian shiraz, and an English wine, Chapel Down bacchus.”
Airlines do appear torn between what they know will work at altitude, and what their passengers expect. Barry Ryan is a supplier relationship executive for British Airways, and manages the wine buyers who purchase BA’s wines from importer/wholesalers Bibendum and Patriarche Wines in London. He told me that BA looks for “variety, quality and regionality” in their wines. “For example on April 2012′s first-class wine list we feature Mullineux Syrah Swartland 2009,” (a South African wine from an emerging region). “We tend to feature at least one old world variety and one new world variety, in both red and white categories)”.
I asked Ryan if BA found its passengers to be conservative – “I’ll have the chardonnay” – or does it depend on the class of seat? “Our demographic is extremely varied. In first class we tend to offer a good quality claret and white burgundy. However, saying that, we always look for opportunities to delight our customers, so often we will try something different, such as the Mullineux.”
British Airways claims to push the envelope a little further than some rivals. At the Taste of London Festival in 2011, BA – also the main sponsors of this food and drink festival – themed their exhibition around ‘Height Cuisine’ and claimed to be taking a lead over other airlines with their innovative approach to airline food and drink, though this has yet to translate into radically different wine lists. They have even entertained journalists on wine tastings at altitude, to promote the event.
CELLARS IN THE SKY
With airlines competing to offer the best meals in-flight, it’s little wonder that they also compete to provide the best wine selections. Short of hiring a hyperbaric chamber, the most fair and reliable way to compare airlines’ offerings is through blind tastings (with the labels covered to conceal the wines’ identities), conducted on the ground – as is done at Business Traveller magazine’s annual ‘Cellars In The Sky’ wine tasting.
Some of the UK’s top wine critics, including two Masters of Wine, participate in this event: Tim Atkin MW, Peter McCombie MW, Charles Metcalfe, Sam Harrop, and winemaker John Worontschak. About 250 wines from 32 airlines were blind-tasted and scored at the last event in November 2011. Wines are scored out of 100, as is the convention, with winning wines scoring between 91 and 98; second- or third-places wines score between 88 and 93 (depending on the category of wine). The average marks for an airline’s red, white and sparkling wines are used to calculate the first- and business-class awards.
As Peter McCombie says, “In CITS we simply judge for wine quality, with some underlying sense that brighter, fruitier wines and (if red) less tannic, will probably perform better. But to be honest we don’t really let that sway us”. McCombie points out that this is as sophisticated as airline wine tasting is likely to get at the moment. “I would love to do the tasting in a hyperbaric chamber, or in the sky. Better still, do it twice, once on the ground and once in the sky. But I think it isn’t going to happen.”
Curious to know who came out top in the CITS tastings? The winners varied by category, so that, for example, Eva Airways and Malaysian Airlines both had good showings for their business-class white wines. But the airlines with the most consistently good wines across all classes of flight were: 1: Qantas; 2 Qatar Airways; 3: jointly won by Air France and Cathay Pacific. To look at the results another way, the best airline alliance for wines was: oneworld.
I contacted Tom Carson, a winemaker who is the principal adviser for the Qantas wine list, to discover the secret of their success. “At Qantas we select an incredibly broad range of wines and styles, trying to ensure the customers get a different experience every time they get on a Qantas flight. We buy from over 200 wineries each year and over 300 different wines. Unlike some airlines that tender for an entire year, our wines change so regularly that it is virtually impossible that you get the same set of wines on plane from day to day.”
But do passengers want this sort of variety, or do they stick to the more obvious choices, I wondered? Carson says, “We find the customer is willing and able to embrace new wines and styles – as long as the quality of the wine is of a certain standard, that it exceeds their expectations. But we do have quite strict parameters about meeting customers’ expectations, depending on what class they fly in. For example, as Qantas only flies Australian wine (with the exception of Grande Marque Champagne), we want to serve the icon wines of Australia in first class as a first-class customer would expects – wines such as Henschke, Giaconda, Mount Mary, Penfolds, Cullen, Moss Wood, etc.
“However, in business class we have a mix of new and emerging producers that are producing outstanding quality, mixed with the more traditional styles and names. Economy is also a real focus of our work. We serve all the wines in 187ml (ie small) bottles and source from many different wineries. By helping to facilitate the bottling of the wines, we try to include smaller producers. We would also like to see economy class wines judged in Cellars In The Sky, as aren’t the majority of travellers in that class? So in the last year we have wines such as Mount Langi Ghiran, Brokenwood, St Hallet, Primo Estate, and Ferngrove have all featured.”
BACK TO REALITY
The careful selection judging of wines is all very well, but when you’re already on a plane, you’re stuck with the wines they are serving. But there are simple tricks to improve the wines you are drinking. Correct wine temperature is crucial to the performance of a wine, and most reds are served too cold, which exacerbates their tannic qualities; let your glass warm up before drinking it. And if you still don’t like the wine, ask to try something else instead – there should always be a choice when you’re flying, though of course in low-cost airlines, there may be no choice at all.