Enjoying wine in an Airbus 380

Tuesday, 22 August, 2017
Jean-Vincent Ridon
Frequent flyers and jet-setters do not always see flying as a leisure. Planes and airport lounges often become a home away from home. Once you travel extensively, you accumulate many small tricks about how to pack, what to wear, which seat to request, which company to choose, and more importantly, what to drink!

I will not elaborate on the joys of drinking at the lounge! Beside the unlimited access to the bar, except in some US airports where liquor licences don't allow you to pour your own liquor so a barman is always on duty, drinking at the lounge is very similar to sipping your glass at home! But once in the air, it is a completely different game.

Unless you still fly a DC-3 model 1947, modern jets are pressurized, meaning an artificial atmosphere is created inside the plane when you cruise at 10 000m altitude, because you would otherwise simply die breathing the thin air at 30 000 feet.

Most modern jets are tuned to the artificial atmosphere equivalent to 1800m altitude.

The immediate consequence for the food and wine lover is that perception is modified, both for the taste, and for the smell.

Taste is articulated around 5 main perceptions on your tongue, sweetness, acidity, bitterness, saltiness and umami – (if you can’t imagine umami, think soy sauce, mushroom, oyster…). Smells and flavours on the other hand are thousands and are perceived by your nose, directly by smelling, or by retro olfaction.

To make it easy to understand, think of your body as a balloon filled with fluids, around 80% of it actually. Fluids contract or expand, depending on temperature and pressure. Being exposed to an artificial high altitude makes your tissues swell because the low pressure creates a differential vacuum, making our fluids trying to escape our body.  If you combine swollen mucosa with the irritating dried air from altitude, you can easily picture how it makes your tongue swollen and your delicate sinuses inflamed to the point that they may block the direct passage to your olfactory bulb.

As a consequence the passenger loses a great percentage of its sensitivity. Furthermore a swollen tongue increases the acid and umami perception, while reducing the feeling of saltiness.

This physiological modification is the main reason why you find the food of most airlines tasteless, and your wine more acid than when drunk on the ground. To make your time on board more enjoyable, some airlines are seriously dedicated to your pleasure. BA tried to resolve the issue by giving passengers a nasal spray to unblock their upper airways and restore the sense of smell. Although this experience received a mixed acceptance by passengers, it has been limited to first class passengers. It was quickly discontinued and deemed impractical.

AIR FRANCE decided to go another route and adapted its inflight catering to the low pressure dry air of the cabin. They select more umami ingredients such as fish, mushrooms or reduced stews and for this task AIR FRANCE uses Michelin–starred chefs from first class to economy class.

With the same search for excellence, Air France uses no less than the best sommelier in the world to select the wines served in all cabins. As the best sommelier in the world title is only awarded every three years, it is now Swiss born Paolo Basso who is in charge of the wine selection for the French airline. He won the world title in 2013 and replaced Olivier Poussier who was Best Sommelier of the World 2010. It is interesting to note that Paolo Basso is an honorary member of SASA, the South African Sommeliers Association, chaired by Higgo Jacobs.

It is crucial that a sommelier is selecting the wines for such a specific environment. Wine Specialists will just assess the overall quality of the wines, while a sommelier always looks at the wine as a part of a broader experience, as extreme as it may be with the extra spiced food served in dry altitude air.

Paolo Basso selects Air France wines keeping this in mind, getting wines with a richer mouthfeel and lower acidity, not only to be enjoyable on its own, but to match the umami-tuned food. With Air France being the official carrier of Wine Tasting Team SA, Captain Anita Streicher Nel had the opportunity to browse through Paolo Basso's selection. When flying with Team SA in 2016, Stephanie Wiid was surprised to see the selection of champagnes on board as she could not identify them blind. Brands she is familiar with tasted fresher and more lively - a good attribute for Champagne. Same reaction from Heidi Kritzinger and Dean Ehrlich (also Team SA 2017), when they realised the wines served were mostly from South of France, a warmer climate, with riper tannins, but actually tasting very balanced and lively in altitude!

Team SA 2016 enjoyed that French Champagne was served even in economy class on Air France, while debating the change of senses perception with altitude. It was Johannesburg-based Dean Ehrlich who first came with the fact that in the cabin the altitude was actually very close to Gauteng's altitude, and this may explain why Gauteng-drinkers tend to prefer bolder and riper wines than their Cape Town counterparts.

It is not because they have been educated with a different taste appreciation, but that altitude makes them perceive wine very differently – This debate is just starting and may help wineries to understand why Johannesburg is a different market.

In the meantime we all wish Team SA 2017 and Team Zimbabwe the best of luck at the World Blind Wine-Tasting Championships, reminding them that for the purpose of training, the altitude of Nuits-Saint-Georges in Burgundy is 225m. They must make sure that they are tuned to this altitude!

Team SA 2016 (Dean, Heidi, Stephani & Captain Anita)
Team SA 2016 (Dean, Heidi, Stephani & Captain Anita)

JV Ridon & Paolo Basso
JV Ridon & Paolo Basso


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