While “better” is quite subjective; it’s probably more accurate to say, “different.” Studies have shown that one’s sense of taste and smell are indeed affected by elevation, and more so, inside the airtight, environmentally controlled fuselage of a plane.
Let’s look at how flying affects our senses, and how that might make a wine taste better to some people.
How Flying Affects Your Senses
According to the BBC, our sense of taste decreases by about 30% when we’re at higher altitudes.
At 30,000 feet, the humidity inside a plane is around 12% — drier than a desert. And since our olfactory system requires a substantial amount of moisture to work effectively, we lose a fair amount of our sense of smell when the air is too dry.
Our taste buds can detect only sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami sensations. It’s actually our nose that parses the different flavor nuances in a wine (e.g., cherries, tobacco, and vanilla). In fact, 80% of what we “think” we taste, we technically smell.
The lower pressure on a plane also wreaks havoc on our senses. Airsickness is a result of the reduced oxygen levels inside the plane’s cabin. The resulting fatigue, stress, and mood swings can indirectly affect our perception.
Emotions can, and do, affect our sense of taste. Almost everything seems better when we’re happy! Traveling to a beautiful place can make you feel that way. And on the opposite end of that spectrum, when we’re feeling airsick or coming back down from a vacation high and faced with a grueling work week … not so much.
How Reduced Sense of Taste Affects the Flavor of Wine
Airlines spend millions of dollars researching how food tastes when you’re in the air, and while airplane food typically leaves something to be desired, it’s not for lack of trying. The senses we tend to lose most in flight are for sweet and salty flavors. And so, a lot of airplane food is loaded up with sugar and salt.
For reasons unknown, flying doesn’t affect our ability to taste sour, bitter, or spicy foods. And the elusive fifth taste, umami, is enhanced. Foods like meat and tomatoes are high in umami quality, explaining why steak and Bloody Marys are some of the most requested items on an airline menu.
Which Wines Taste Best on a Plane?
Given all of this, we know wines end up tasting thin, tannic and acidic on a plane. So, it’s a good idea to stay away from those that already fit that profile. Acidic Champagne, tart Riesling or a chalky Merlot are probably not the best choices at 30,000 feet.
Instead, look for something lush, savory and low in tannins, like Grenache, Syrah or Zinfandel. A soft, oaky Chardonnay will also do well in this environment. And when possible, find some protein or something earthy, like a mushroom risotto, to pair with your wine.
Proactive airlines are now hiring sommeliers and wine experts to taste test wines for their in-flight menus and are working on using the aforementioned factors to their advantage. If your customers are missing 30% of their sense of taste, why not serve wines that cater to this phenomenon?
Wine on a Plane Isn’t Better, Just Different
How can wine possibly taste better on a plane if flying dulls our senses? There are several ways that it might:
- Traveling tends to put people in a good mood. And as we know, this means that they’re more likely to think everything tastes better.
- Wines that seem average or even out of balance on land might improve with our senses muted. Technically, you’re tasting less of it — so in this way, the profile of a mediocre wine is elevated.
- Wines that cater to the way our senses change in flight will taste better, too.
The Bottom Line — Save the Good Stuff for After You Land
Chances are slim that you’ll be popping a vintage Champagne above the clouds. It’s more realistic to focus your attention and energy on saving your best wines for more terrestrial endeavors. Wine Guardian can help ensure that all your “wine flights” will be at their peak elevation by providing the best possible storage environment with our wine cellar cooling units.
Opening a bottle of wine can be like taking a vacation. So, wherever you go next, let us guide you in the right direction!