Why Scientists Say Your Glass of Wine Tastes Different in the Air
If you're a frequent flyer and a self-professed sommelier, you may have questioned the taste of the house red the last time you flew across the Atlantic Ocean. Before you start questioning your own palate, though, rest assured that you're not totally crazy when it comes to how flyers taste and perceive wine in the air vs. on the ground. When it comes to flying, the human body goes through a lot to account for the changes we experience in the air — high altitude, low humidity and reduced air pressure are just some of the things to consider. But how do other external factors like noise and recirculated air change our perception of how wine tastes at 35,000 feet?
American Airlines is aiming to improve the overall customer experience with a few new wine-focused initiatives. “We are more focused on giving our passengers the adventure of seeing more wines more often," said Ken Chase, a wine consultant for American Airlines. "The wines we select are very versatile with many dishes. On some routes, we will have route-specific wines that will match with the traditional dishes of that country,” said Chase.
Having an understanding of the science behind flying and the human palate is also something Chase considers. “Hydration is the key to keeping your palate sharp. Usually the palate starts to lose its sharpness after about 2-3 hours at altitude,” said Chase. “Wines do not change at altitude… it is the human palate that perceives them to be different due to the re-cycling of the cabin air.”
Dr. Herbert Stone, Sensory Consultant and co-founder of the Sensory Division at the Institute of Food Technologists, is a frequent flyer and says contributing external factors like air pressure affect the body’s ability to enjoy wine. “Since the plane is pressured to about 5,000 feet, the air is very dry and the palate will be drier (compared to on the ground)," said Stone. “Our senses are not in the same condition on the ground. Our sensitivity is best when moist and with thinner and cooler air, the wine is more volatile, losing its aroma faster."
To help, Stone recommends drinking water before and after drinking wine on the plane. “At high altitudes, the body will absorb alcohol faster,” said Stone. "Alcohol exaggerates its effects on the body so (drinking water) is a way of diluting the effect of the alcohol.”
Unsurprisingly, it turns out science also plays a part in determining how food tastes in the air. According to Professor Charles Spence, award-winning author of The Perfect Meal and leading experimental psychologist at The University of Oxford, science also plays a role when it comes to enjoying food at 35,000 feet. When the flight attendant asks what you'll be having for dinner, Spence suggests choosing Umami-rich foods. “Umami is enhanced by loud background noise of engines,” said Spence, who has consulted and worked with molecular chefs like British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal.
And what about choosing salty pretzels over something a bit sweeter? “We know from available research that sweet and salty are suppressed,” said Spence, so sticking to Umami-rich food is your best bet when pairing a meal with wine. Professor Robin Dando, Assistant Professor at Cornell University's Department of Food Science, also agrees. “Dryness of the air, air pressure (changes) and even lower oxygen can have some effect,” said Dando. “Sweet taste was depressed and Umami ore intense, which would push your liking away from sweet and toward savory."
So what wine should you order if you don’t have an affinity for selecting the best one to match your in-flight meal? “Well, one might consider choosing high-altitude wine from Chile or Argentina, where the air pressure of the wine is not so different from the reduced cabin air pressure,” said Spence. And if you don’t want to get drunk too quickly, Spence recommends eliminating noise, which impairs your judgment on how much you’ve had.