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Hold the Bordeaux and Bubbly: The Science Behind Why Low Tannin, Low Acid Wine Tastes Better Mid-flight

By April 24, 2019 Food for thought

Wine and private travel go hand and hand. Who doesn’t enjoy a glass of bubbly in the sky while cruising to the upcoming board meeting or family event? But, have you ever noticed how a wine can taste crisp and fruity in the air, then be flat and dull on the ground? Or how a rich tannin filled aromatic red on the ground suddenly becomes bland and leathery at 30,000 feet?

The truth is that wine is brought on airplanes all the time and returns to the ground completely unfazed by the altitude; that mediocre Chardonnay stays a mediocre Chardonnay. The change occurs to us, or rather, our taste buds.

Throughout the 90’s the bland tasting food served on commercial airlines served as the focus of many jokes. However, the culinary industry has been working hard to determine why everything from a pasta dish to a mouthful of wine becomes manipulated in a whole host of ways while being consumed on an airplane.

As it turns out, the simple fact of being 30,000 feet in the air  affects the way you taste. The lack of humidity, lower air pressure, background noise, and the regulations on how food must be prepared in-flight, all reduce the sensitivity of your taste buds. Sweet and salty foods taste 30% less than they would if consumed on the ground. Interestingly enough, sour, bitter and spicy flavors are almost unaffected.

A major factor is humidity. Pressurized cabins at 30,000 feet have a humidity level of less than 12% – drier than most deserts. This dryness has a huge impact on our sense of smell as our noses rely on evaporating nasal mucus to experience an aroma. Studies have shown that up to 80% of we think is taste, is actually smell. With a limited sense of smell, food naturally becomes more bland and boring. To balance this, in-flight food on commercial airlines is often modified with additional salt or seasoning, more than any chef would choose to serve on the ground, to account for the cabin dining atmosphere.

Another factor that can greatly affect our taste is the noise of the aircraft’s engines. Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, has conducted many tests on how sound can influence the sense of taste. He determined that the background noise of a plane can greatly impact our perception of sweet and bitter flavors. Here is a short video produced by the BBC explaining more in depth how sound impacts taste. According to Spence’s research not all tastes are impacted to the same magnitude when background noise is present. In fact umami, the savory meaty taste of broth and cooked meats, is not impacted by noise at any frequency or decibel level.

Taking the science into account, the rich, salty, umami flavors, of a Bloody Mary, or a glass of simple tomato juice, are going to be the beverages least affected by the noise and changes in atmospheric pressures aboard the aircraft.  

But how does this affect that highly sought after glass of wine?

A well-balanced wine at ground level will remain so at high altitudes, but our taste buds will dull the fruity and sweet flavors; emphasizing any harsh tannins or acidity. So that premium Bordeaux or Burgundy with a core balanced by fruity flavors, may lose its hint of sweetness in the air. The same principle applies to champagne and sparkling wines. Bottles that boast an acidic and tart flavor most likely will not meet expectations at higher altitudes.

For flyers where the wine selection and pairing is a critical part of the inflight experience, managing the bottle selection becomes an essential duty of Private Jet Service’s concierge team. The technological advances – micro-oxygenation, better understanding of physiological ripeness and tannin management – have all made it easier to curate a well balanced wine in the air.

Taste testing wines both on the ground and at altitude, can be a fun experience and one that can be curated for those with sensitive pallets. But, if you are looking for the most consistent bet for your inflight cocktail…stick with the Bloody Mary’s.

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