I almost never leave a glass of wine unfinished. But a few weeks ago on a late night flight back home, I got distracted by a book, and ended up holding my half-full plastic glass of wine with my tray table properly secured and my seat back upright as the plane landed. Realizing that it is ridiculous and maybe forbidden to carry a small amount of wine off a plane, I gulped it down while we taxied to the gate.
But something was wrong. In the air, my red wine had tasted crisp: cheap, but passable. Here on the ground my Cabernet Sauvignon had dulled out and tasted, well, gross. It wasn’t the same wine I had drunk in the air. Or at least, it didn’t taste like it.
“You’re not crazy,” Jordan Salcito, beverage director for Momofuku restaurants, told me when I called her desperate for insight. “We know for a fact that wine tastes different in the air.” Because I’d always finished my glass mid-flight and because I’m not a trained wine professional, Salcito said, I’d probably never noticed it before, but everything tastes different at altitude. Or rather, your body’s tasting mechanisms are compromised at altitude. “I would say as a general rule,” Salcito says, “crappy wine is going to taste less crappy at altitude.”
Scientifically, nothing is happening to the wine itself. Wine gets taken on airplanes all the time and returns to the ground completely unphased by the altitude; that mediocre Chardonnay stays a mediocre Chardonnay. What changes in an airplane is us.
Andrea Robinson, a Master Sommelier who helps Delta choose their in-flight wines, walked me through the basics what is happening when we fly. She says it boils down to two major factors: dryness, and cabin pressure.
“Aircraft cabins are incredibly dry,” she explains. “And the drier the environment, the drier your olfactory system is. When your olfactory sense are dried out, you aren’t able to sense complexity.” The second problem is that cabin pressure in airplanes causes flavor molecules to fly around faster. “Aromas get dissipated quickly when the vapor is moving faster, which makes it difficult for those aromas to get into your already compromised olfactory system,” she says.
These effects are pretty easily rectified in your little tray of chicken or beef. Since passengers can’t taste as well, so chefs add more salt, more sugar, and more spices to their dishes. But wines range drastically in how the altitude changes them.
That’s why wine experts like Robinson are constantly doing their own in-flight testing. “Flight attendants see me coming,” Robinson jokes about her inflight testing rituals. When she first started working with Delta on their menu, they took 60 wines into the air to try. Jordan Cluer, a wine consultant for Qatar airways, has taken wines with him to the Mt. Everest base camp and the top of Kilamanjaro just to see what happens to them. He’s never afraid to be the guy tasting 12 different wines on a plane, though he has definitely gotten some strange looks.
There are some tricks to picking the right wine in the air. “The flight isn’t going to make your wine totally unrecognizable,” Cluer told me, “but you still want to make a good choice.”
Every wine expert I talked to had the same recommendations: crisp, light wines with very strong scents (think floral, fruity) are going to taste better in the air. That means you’re almost always going to be happy with white wines like Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc, and reds like Pinot Noir, Rioja, or Argentinian Malbec. Sparkling wine, they say, is always a good choice. Turns out there’s a reason besides celebration they serve champagne in first class.
You want to avoid wines with a lot of tannins—think Chianti, big Italian wines, or a hefty Cabernet, like the stuff old school business guys order at fancy dinners to make themselves appear serious and worldly. These wines take on a particularly leathery aspect in-flight. You also want to avoid wines that are light in flavor even when drunk on the ground—like an Italian Pinot Grigio.
One more important piece of advice: stay hydrated. “Everything is going to taste better if you’re drinking a glass of water for every glass of wine,” Andrea Robinson says. It’s also an important tip because the combination of dehydration and altitude makes alcohol seem more potent. “There’s anecdotal evidence that one drink in the air is worth two on the ground,” Cluer says. “I would always make a point of avoiding really high alcohol wines like reds from Australia and Zinfandels, which are pushing the 15.5% ABV mark.”
Ultimately, though, the differences in the sky aren’t drastic enough to make you spit-take.“The kind of wine to always drink is the kind of wine that you feel like drinking,” Salcito tells me. If you hate rosé, for example, being in a giant metal tube hurtling through the air at hundreds of miles per hour is not going to suddenly make you like it. So look for a not-too-tannic, not-super-boozy wine you like on the list, and go for that one—just rest easy knowing that even if it’s kind of terrible, you probably won’t be able to tell.