Red wines seem to suffer most, but champagne not so much.
Red wines seem to suffer most, but champagne not so much. Photo: Craig Abraham

Cathy Gowdie

As a frequent flyer and keen wine drinker, I find I don't enjoy wine very much on flights, to the point that if I do have a glass, I mainly stick to champagne. Why does wine taste worse in the air?

From where I sit, a dispiriting number of rows behind where you sit, the answer is simple - the miniature bottles of shiraz and sauvignon blanc dispensed in steerage really are more generic and less interesting than the wines I choose to drink on terra firma. Mind you, they are usually not bad, and snobbery doesn't stop me from stashing a spare or three in my seat pocket.

In the cheap seats I'm grateful for anything over and above a safety demonstration. A plastic cup (or several) of something inoffensive helps the weary traveller overlook at least two of the inescapable indignities of budget travel - namely, that the inflight sandwiches will be served mortuary-cold; and the guy next to you will chew them with his mouth open.

However, passengers being plied with champagne are usually flying business class or luxuriating in first class, with silk pyjamas and personal masseurs.

If you have chosen your airline wisely (and here I must put in a good word for the much-maligned Qantas, which goes to a lot of effort to showcase great Australian wines), the wines in the expensive seats might include some big names as well as wines of character from carefully chosen smaller producers.

Why, then, don't they taste as good as they would on the ground? About five years ago, Lufthansa commissioned a study that found that being in a pressurised cabin at 10,000 metres affects the way we perceive flavours in much the same way as having a cold. A combination of low humidity and air pressure dries out the throat and nose membranes, and a lot of our perceptions of flavour come from our noses. In these conditions, delicate aromas are hard to detect, and wines can taste dull and overly acidic or astringent. Reds seem to suffer most, but champagne not so much. This is why younger, intensely fruity New World reds often work better in the air than an aged burgundy or bordeaux. The tasting panels for the better airlines are aware of these issues and aim to choose wines that will stand up to the conditions.