If you’ve ever had a glass of wine while flying at 30,000 feet, you’ve probably noticed that the wine often tastes different, even funny, compared to how it tastes on the ground. That’s because altitude and cabin air pressure impact the wine in ways we can’t really explain, but what we do know for certain is that not all wine consumed on an airplane tastes very good.
“I taste through over 2,000 wines before selecting the limited amount of bottles that we’ll serve each year on United Airlines,” Doug Frost, sommelier for United, tells us. “When you taste wine for the plane, you have to always be mindful of the impact of consuming that wine high in the sky, which means really being selective about the types of wines you pick.”
Not all wine is enjoyable at 30,000 feet, including some wines that are absolutely stunning when consumed on the ground. “Wines that are often too delicate or elegant get lost when drunk on an airplane,” Doug says. “While no one is sure why this occurs the best guess is that the cabin pressure and the dryness of the air seem to just suck all the nuance out of these types of bottles.” Which is why you often don’t see people consuming delicate Pinot Noirs or aged Nebbiolos in the sky, even if they’re flying first class!
That being said, there are some wines that hold up just fine when poured on a the plane. “To enjoy a wine on an airplane, you want to drink a wine with intensity,” says Doug. “By intensity I mean you want it to be a wine that is incredibly fruit forward, or a wine that has strong oak flavors. These styles of wines have signature flavors that won’t get lost, even at 30,000 feet. Garnacha from Cariñena is a great example of this. It’s a wine that beautifully expresses its fruit. Even in the air, those delicious characteristics can’t be muted. It’s why I pour Garnacha from Cariñena on United flights.”
While there have been some highly touted tips and tricks for getting more enjoyment out of your wine on a plane, such as hyper-decanting the bottle, Doug says the most important tip is simply to enjoy yourself. “There are really no tricks to drinking wine in the air besides being honest about what you like. Wine should be pleasurable, especially so when it comes to flying, since so much of the experience can be stressful. If you don’t enjoy what you’ve been poured, don’t be afraid to say something. The flight attendant will be happy to get you something else.”
This advice doesn’t just apply to those flying first class either. “I look for wines that taste great, no matter where the passenger is seated. It’s true that a person flying in First or Business will have a larger selection to choose from, but even in coach the wines you drink should be pleasurable, and hold up to the altitude impact.”
There is one tip, however, that Doug says everyone should subscribe to when flying: “never turn down a glass of Champagne!”
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