Where does your Italian wine taste best to you?
Perhaps you like nothing more than a glass of red while you’re soaking in the tub. Grab a glass of wine and a good book and you have a taste sensation.
Maybe there’s nothing better for unlocking the flavours in a glass of white than to enjoy it outside with the sun beating down on your shoulders.
Or you may think that there’s no better way to unlock the flavours in a glass of wine than to pair it with a food that complements it perfectly.
We’re certainly not going to tell you that you’re wrong, no matter which of these scenarios feels most appealing to you.
However, we are going to tell you that science seems to think that you’re wrong.
According to some experts, you have to go a long way from wherever you are right now to get the best tasting wine.
In fact, you have to go about 30,000 feet directly upwards!
What Are You Talking About?
We know, it sounds a little strange.
But what we’re getting at here is that there is a class of experts who claim that the best tasting wine you’ll ever have is the wine that you drink when you’re on an airplane.
That sounds weird, right?
However, it is a fact that wine tastes different on a plane. The atmospheric changes alone guarantee that.
It may be the case and the reason why likely has very little to do with the wine itself.
It’s All About Your Senses
In a story published in GQ, Kelsey McKinney describes being affected by this phenomena on a flight of her own. She note that the red wine that she got served at altitude tasted as crisp as any wine that she’d ever tasted before.
However, she got so engrossed in her book during the flight that she forgot about the wine entirely until it came time for the plane to land.
So, she grabbed the little plastic “bottle”, put her tray in the upright position, and waited. The intention was to drink the wine after the plane landed. However, it soon occurred to her that airlines probably frown on people who try to carry wine out of the plan.
Thus, she made the decision to swig the entire glass…
And that’s when she discovered that the wine that tasted so crisp when she was up in the air had become flat and bland as the plane came into land.
Confused, she consulted a number of experts on the subject, including Andrea Robinson.
Robinson is the Master Sommelier who helps Delta make their in-flight wine choices. And she pointed out that this strange change in tastes is down to the conditions, rather than the wine itself:
“Aircraft cabins are incredibly dry. And the drier the environment, the drier your olfactory system is. When your olfactory senses are dried out, you aren’t able to sense complexity.”
She goes to describe how changes in cabin pressure will also affect how you taste the wine:
“Aromas get dissipated quickly when the vapour is moving faster, which makes it difficult for those aromas to get into your already compromised olfactory system.”
The interesting contradiction of this situation is that these compromises to your olfactory system can give you a skewed representation of the wine.
One could argue that a very good wine should not be consumed at altitude for that reason. You’re losing the complexity and subtleness of the wine.
But what about the cheaper wines that most of us will consume while on a plane?
In those situations, these conditions may actually lead to you enjoying the wine more than you would when you’re on the ground. Because you’re not experiencing every single note in the wine, you may have a better experience if the wine isn’t of great quality.
In other words, the notes you do experience are only those that are powerful enough to overcome your lowered ability to taste flavours.
And that’s what leads to the odd situation in which the worst a wine tastes when you’re on the ground, the better that it may taste when you’re in the air.
So…What Should I Drink?
McKinney’s investigations led her to the following conclusion:
“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.”
So essentially, the lighter the wine and stronger the notes, the more likely you are to have a great experience when drinking while flying. The lower complexity actually accentuates the notes that the wine has, which means you’ll appreciate them even more.
Simply put, the wine will taste like it has a stronger flavour in the air than it does on the ground.
However, complexity puts the dampeners on the theory. If a wine has more subtle and nuanced flavours, you’re likely not going to enjoy it when you fly. You’ll lose a lot of what makes the wine worth drinking and you may find that the wine has no single dominant note to accentuate.
So Is Wine Really Better at 30,000 Feet?
The wine itself doesn’t change at all.
It’s how you experience the wine that changes. And for the wine to taste better in the air, there are some very specific conditions that need to be met, as mentioned above.
So the answer is that it all depends on the wine.
The vast majority of wines will likely taste better on the ground. That’s especially the case for red wines, which tend to sell themselves on the balance between complex and subtle notes and flavours.
But a wine that’s crisp and refreshing on the ground will likely get accentuated when you’re in the air.
We can’t honestly say that we’re going to test out this theory in too much depth ourselves. But we certainly know what wines we’ll be picking the next time we find ourselves on a plane.