The short answer: Yes. There’s nothing wrong in enjoying a glass of vino — or three — when you’re up in the air. As long as you know how your experience is difference when you’re 30,000 ft above ground.
#1: Our tastebuds go out of whack in the sky.
The high altitude and dry cabin air (at 12 per cent humidity, it’s drier than most deserts) are the key reasons that our sense of taste is affected on a plane. Research shows that sweet and salty senses are reduced, though bitter and spicy flavours are largely unaffected. Airlines like Air New Zealand are upping their game, roping in the country’s award-winning chefs like Michael Meredith and Peter Gordon as inflight menu consultants to cater to altered palettes up in the air. “The major consideration for our culinary team and wine consultants when planning our menus and selecting the wines that we serve on board is that our taste buds change dramatically at 30,000ft. We are looking for menu balance and taste sensations,” says Air New Zealand's regional general manager Asia, Scott Carr.
#2: Wine tastes different onboard too.
According to Scott, the conditions on a flight also cause “the tannin and astringency of wine to taste more pronounced.” Besides having a team of experts curate its wine selection, Air New Zealand sources its vino from New Zealand’s most-feted winery Villa Maria. According to Nick Picone, Villa Maria’s chief winemaker: “Simple things such as the temperature of the wine and the type of glassware being used can have as great an impact. All things being equal, if a wine has any imbalance, this can be slightly accentuated at altitude. Very dry, acidic or oak dominant wines for example can taste even more so in the air. There can be a slight ‘dulling’ effect on a wine’s fruit at altitude. This can promote other aspects of the wine to a greater degree than experienced on the ground, like the oak in chardonnay for example.”
#3: But it’s not all that different.
According to Nick, the general rules of wine pairing on terra firma also apply when you’re 30,000 ft above ground. “Match light, fresh fare to lighter, fresh wines; richer food to fuller-bodied wines. Generally, I’d tend to select sauvignon blanc as an aperitif for light fare and most seafood dishes; chardonnay and pinot noir for poultry and pork; and fuller-bodied merlot and blends for rich red meat dishes,” he explains.
#4: You get tipsy faster onboard.
This is due to the dehydrating nature of air travel, so the effects of any kind of alcohol may be noticed earlier, Nick explains. “A good rule of thumb is to go easy and drink plenty of water along the way, but by all means enjoy the relaxing and unique experience of having a great wine or two with your dinner while travelling 30,000 feet above the ground!”