Wine at altitude has been very topical lately giving some growers bragging rights about their vineyards’ height above sea level. (Read more) Listening to Andrea Robinson, the engaging and energetic Master Sommelier of Delta Airlines, at the Business of Wine and Tourism Conference last week, I realised that other than growing wine at altitude, drinking wine at altitude is also a very interesting subject.
“In-flight wine-lists are big business. British Airways goes through 82 000 bottles every month – almost one million bottles per annum – in its Club World business class”, says Graham Howe in an his article, Wine Flights, tasting at altitude.
Big business indeed and a competitive environment for wine producers, but to get a listing with an airline is not all about quality, availability and price. The selection of wines for airplane consumption can be quite tricky, with two cabin conditions having a definite impact on what the wine tastes like at altitude – the dryness of the air and the air pressure.
Because of lower pressure and less oxygen in the cabin, the wine’s aromas will dissipate quicker while the dry conditions can make acidic or tannic attributes more pronounced. This is of course a very simplistic explanation. Airlines have rigorous selection procedures based on “the impact of reduced oxygen and moisture levels, lower humidity, aircraft vibrations, white noise and atmospheric pressure on the aroma, taste and experience of both food and wine at altitudes of 10 000 metres.” (Read more)
Is it all about upfront fruit and a smooth structure? As another simplified way to look at it, yes. Quoting MW Keith Isaac, from the Wine-searcher article: “There are two things we look for on the ground that translate well in the air. The first is lots of fruit. The second, for reds only, is that the tannins are ripe and the palate is subtle and silken.”
The chefs of course have the same challenges as the winemakers and in 2013, British Airways implemented acclaimed Chef Heston Blumenthal’s concept of Height Cuisine. The dishes contained ingredients such as seaweed, strong cheese, mushrooms, olives, balsamic vinegar, Asian spices, etc. that bring a stronger umami taste and counters the bitterness of food at high altitudes.
According to the telegraph.co.uk the cold temperature, unnatural cabin lighting as well as high stress levels all contribute to the loss of an estimated 30% of our ability to taste at altitude and those selecting the in-flight dishes and drinks have to consider how our taste buds are affected.
The challenge for airlines lies in finding a wine that will perform well at altitude, but as with all things in life, there is more to it. While thorough research, a meticulous selection process and tasting the wines at altitude are all standard practice for Andrea Robinson when compiling her wine lists, it was her knowledge of the customer, her dedication to going the extra (air)mile, training and educating the cabin crew and introducing wine and food experiences to passengers that have gained her brand loyalty in a time where it is a very scarce commodity. In her words: “Get to people’s passion points and achieve loyalty beyond reason.”