How Being 30,000 Feet in the Air Affects the Flavour of Wine

When it comes to vintages and varieties, our cup runneth over. There’s more than enough wine stocked in the cellars of the Old and New Worlds for you to enjoy a glass every day of your life and never sip exactly the same type twice. But those with perceptive palates also know that it’s possible to drink from the same bottle and have it taste differently with each glass. As world–renowned sommelier Véronique Rivest explains, everything from your food to your mood can flavour your judgment of a wine’s character. And drinking in flight is no exception.

“The airplane is a drastically different environment from your kitchen table,” says Rivest, who selects the reds, whites and rosés for Air Canada’s Signature and Business Classes. High altitudes translate to lower air pressure, decreased humidity and an increase in background noise – all of which influences our senses, including smell, which accounts for up to 80 percent of what we perceive as taste.

In 2008, researchers at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics compared six wines under normal conditions to the same in a simulated airplane cabin. In the “in–flight” test environment, perceptions of fruitiness in light wines diminished while other notes soured, tasting musty and tart.

October 25, 2019
An animation of how air affects the flavour of wine

Other studies have explored the way aircraft sound affects vino’s vigour. A 2014 article by experimental psychologist Charles Spence and his colleagues found that loud ambient noise dampens sweet and salty flavours, as well as sourness and bitterness. It’s only the savoury fifth taste, umami, that is almost immune to background noise. This explains why somewhere near 27 percent of airplane drink requests are for tomato juice, typically the most umami beverage on offer.

With these factors in mind, Rivest avoids wines that are too austere. That puts dry cabernet sauvignons, Chiantis and other highly tannic wines on the no–fly list. Same goes for heavily oaky and high–alcohol selections. “I look for wines that are balanced but also that have great versatility,” she says, opting instead for light reds and crisp, fruity whites or rosés. Wines with higher levels of acidity tend to offer more liveliness and freshness. “They’ll wake up your palate, and they’re more food–friendly.”



Savoury Studies


The emerging field of neurogastronomy investigates flavour cognition and perception. Here are some recent findings.

  1. Tangy Tones Pairing wine with music can alter mouthfeel. A 2011 study in the British Journal of Psychology found that a tipple to Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” tasted subtle and refined, while “Just Can’t Get Enough” by Nouvelle Vague made the same wine zingy and refreshing. The same researchers also discovered that when French accordion music was playing in the supermarket, French wines were purchased five times more than German wines.

  2. Label Placebo An experiment by French researchers Frédéric Brochet and Gil Morrot found that when the same wine bottle was alternately labelled as a grand cru or vin de table, reviewers alternately praised it or turned their noses up at it. Another study by the business school INSEAD looked at how the brain reacts to the same wine when the taster is told it’s cheap or expensive. It found that an increase in price corresponds with increased activity in the brain’s reward centre.

  3. Cap it Off When vintners put a cork in their bottles, people think the wine tastes better. In a study published last year in the International Journal of Hospitality Management, participants preferred wine that was poured from a bottle with a natural cork. It rated higher on attributes such as bouquet, taste and overall quality versus wine from bottles with screw caps or synthetic stoppers. Surprisingly, glass stoppers rated almost as well as cork, making them a viable alternative.