Wine Flights: Tasting at Altitude

Wednesday, 3 August, 2016
Graham Howe tastes his way around the world in eighty or so wines - and reflects on the sensory experience of tasting wine up in the air and down on the ground.

Flying around the world these days means you get to taste the global village of wine at ten thousand metres - and in transit in airline lounges. This year I’ve tasted dozens of some of the world’s top still and sparkling wine marques showcased on wine-lists on long-haul flights from South Africa to the Australia, the UK, Switzerland and USA. The quality of in-flight food and wine offerings are a prestigious showcase for first and business class services - and offer wine producers an invaluable window of opportunity to present new releases to inbound consumers and high-flying markets.

In June I tasted some twenty-four top wines from ten old and new wine countries en route from Cape Town to Dallas via London on British Airways. Talk about a flight of wine! While waiting in the business departure lounge I sampled a few fine Cape wines - a superb maiden Viognier/Chenin Blanc/Roussanne 2012 blend from Van Coller/Fijndraai in Stellenbosch made by consultant Ken Forrester - along with his own superb Renegade 2011 - a voluptuous blend of Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvedre. With two hours to kill, I also enjoyed Paul Cluver’s Close Encounter Riesling, Stellenrust Chardonnay, Doran Shiraz and L’Avenir Pinotage. So far, so good.     

Wines taste different on the ground and in the air. My next flight of wine was up above the clouds. On the outbound leg of my long-haul to London I tasted a lively aperitif of Champagne Henriot Brut Souverain NV from Reims, a barrel-fermented white Bordeaux blend 2013 from Chateau Couhins-Lurton, Chateauneuf-du-Pape Domaine des Cellier Alchemy 2014 - in good company with Bellingham’s exotic Bernard Series Viognier 2015 and Basket Press Syrah 2013. Each of the wines was rich and full-flavoured, wooded, with savoury, spicy, smoky flavours, weighty tannin and texture, which showed well as I reached cruising altitude a little after the plane.  

Over the years I’ve attended a few workshops with wine selectors for national airlines in Cape Town and London and visited the bonded wine cellar at Heathrow. Many of the world’s top wine judges sit on in-flight wine list panels and airline award shows which are based on rigorous selection procedures. I’m fascinated by state-of-the-art research conducted into the impact of factors such as 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.

Every international airline showcases its own national vineyard and cuisine - alongside global benchmarks and brands. Flying Swiss International on a travel assignment to Switzerland this year afforded the opportunity to taste popular local varieties such as Cornalin from Clos de Montibeux as well as a Riesling/Sylvaner blend from Rebbau Spiez - - alongside an intense Carmenere from Montes Vineyards in Santa Cruz. and an earthy, organic single vineyard Sauvignon Blanc from Santiago, Chile. Heading down under on Qantas, I enjoyed big, spicy signature Shiraz from the Barossa, Riesling from Clare Valley and benchmark Semillon from Hunter Valley - paired to Qantas celebrity chef’s Neil Perry’s contemporary Australian cuisine..

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. Keith Isaac, master of wine and GM of Castelnau Wine Agencies, has consulted with British Airways on its wine programme since 2010. Does the way we taste wine change at altitude? He comments, “Yes. 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. So we haven’t bought Barolo or Barbaresco wine for British Airways because we find they don’t work particularly well in the air.” He recommends a good Pinot Noir or Chardonnay.

He adds, “Last year we tasted about 2 000 wines for British Airways. We always compare like-for-like in terms of regions – we wouldn’t compare a Californian Chardonnay with an Australian one. We pick from a range of suppliers, based on our knowledge of the châteaux, vintage and producers. We nearly always taste blind to ensure there’s no bias, and mark the wines on a 20-point scale to make a shortlist. We flag on the menu if they’ve won awards or scored highly in key wine magazines, but we never buy a wine just because it has a gold medal – it must get through us first!”

The findings of far-sighted research conducted by SAA two decades ago found that “The riper berry flavours of many New World wine styles survive virtually unscathed at 10 000 metres … The more substantially polymerised tannins provide acceptable texture levels with little or no trace of bitterness”. The key findings were that the relative dehydration of pressurised cabins result in reduced recognition of flavours like coffee, cocoa and chocolate, soft fruits like banana and peach - with marginally reduced recognition of citrus flavours and no measurable loss in riper berry fruits. Many of their current wines showcase local stars such as Chenin Blanc and Pinotage.

The impact of altitude, lower humidity and sensory inhibitors on the in-flight eating and drinking experience was one of the subjects of Heston Blumenthal’s Mission Impossible television series. To counter the loss of an estimated 30% of your ability to taste at altitude, he devised what British Airways call Height Cuisine - introducing ingredients high in umami - the fifth savoury taste which occurs naturally in seaweed, parmesan cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes, olives, truffles, citrus juices, balsamic, vinaigrettes, and spicy Indian and Thai fare - paired with suitable high-flying wine.

British Airways make a monthly selection of two reds and two whites for each long-haul region. Keith Isaacs explains, “One red and white will always be European, and the other two will depend on the destination region. For example if you’re going to Cape Town, then you’ll have a choice of perhaps a Sancerre Domaine Bailly-Reverdy 2014 - and Ataraxia Chardonnay 2014 from Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge. We make sure there’s a contrast between the style and grape variety. There are some great new wines coming up on the Cape Town/London route such as the Oldenburg Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 (Platter 5-stars), Condrieu Les Ravines 2013 from Niéro (93 points from Parker) - and an amazing Amarone della Valpolicella 2010 from Buglioni.”

After a five-hour stop-over in terminal five at Heathrow, tasting lighter-styled Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Chablis and Carmenere last month, I was soon winging my way to the US on a second leg with British Airways. I was headed to New Orleans to attend the annual IPW travel conference in the USA - and explore the great river road which winds its way along the blues and jazz highway of the Mississippi Delta. En route I loved the salty, citrus blossom quality of Vina Cartin’s Albarino 2015 from near Santiago de Compostela - and Montecillo’s a full-bodied reserve Rioja 2010 - as well as a delicious Kendall Jackson Reserve Chardonnay and Hahn Pinot Noir 2014 from Monterey. I’d completed an amazing wine journey by the time I got to New Orleans. (It’s amazing how fine food and wine makes the time fly when you are flying.)

How does jet lag affects the way we experience food and wine? According to research, the circadian clock, a 24-hour master clock governing every aspect of the human body’s functions, resides deep in our brain. It synchronises all our internal systems - from sleep and wake cycles and levels of alertness to appetite and mood. Flying across time zones puts the body into new patterns of light and activity more quickly than the body clock adjusts. Confusing the clock affects appetite, mood and digestion. It all goes to show the enjoyment of food and wine is a total sensory experience - from our mood and time of day to ambience, art and music of the setting.

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is likely the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for a wide variety of print media, online and radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over seventy countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra.



Paul Cluver Close Encounter Riesling
Paul Cluver Close Encounter Riesling

Ken Forrester Renegade, Bellingham Bernard Series Viognier & Stellenrust Chardonnay
Ken Forrester Renegade, Bellingham Bernard Series Viognier & Stellenrust Chardonnay

Qantas
Qantas

British Airways
British Airways

Umami
Umami

Ataraxia Chardonnay
Ataraxia Chardonnay

Wine list
Wine list

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