Glass of Chardonnay with airplane window in background

Airplane Wine: How to Choose the Best Wine in the Sky

Many of us would claim to be travel pros. We know how to pack within the 50-pound limit, we’re masters of airport security and are really good at sitting and waiting – frequently crossing our fingers, hoping for no delays. In general, we know the drill. But once we finally reach our often-not-so-spacious seat and those hours of air travel ensue, amid the soft hum of the 747’s engine, we relish in that hard-earned silence. And, more often than not, after a half hour, resolve (and rightly so) that it’s proper to pass the time with a deliciously dry cabernet sauvignon or an elegant chardonnay. But do we really know how to make the best airplane wine choices?

High on Fine Wine: Savoring the Best Airplane Wine

Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson does. Responsible for locating the best wines to serve on airlines such as Delta, she knows what occurs to our senses when we’re cruising at 40,000 feet. “Air travelers’ sense of taste and smell are muted at altitude by two things: lower humidity and lower cabin pressure. The dry conditions of the cabin in-flight dry out both scent and taste receptors, muting one’s ability to perceive aroma… as well as the tastes for which taste buds are responsible: sweet, sour, bitter and salt,” Robinson told us. “The sweet spot for wines in-flight is expressiveness, complexity, and harmony. So, an expertly oaked chardonnay can work if the abundance of fruit and acidity are on a par. In reds, integrated tannins cloaked in expressive layers of scent and flavor shine in everything from classically elegant styles of pinot noir to Bordeaux varietals like cabernet sauvignon.” Apparently, airplane wine needs to live in the land of balance rather than heft and power.

It will probably not come as a shock to hear that a large percentage of frequent fliers are proclaimed oenophiles. In 2014 alone, Delta Airlines served more than 2.8 million bottles of wine on-board. Referred to as “oeno-flyers” by CNN, these wine connoisseurs are going as far as to double their travel time to select a flight equipped with a more extensive, specialized wine list. That’s dedication. But, given Robinson’s argument, maybe their reasoning is more logical than you might give them credit for: Some connoisseurs find red wine to be tastier in the air than on land.

In general, wines tend to taste more acidic and tannic at higher altitudes. “The drying sensation of higher tannin in red wines can seem exaggerated in the dry cabin conditions, making certain red wines seem harsh and/or bitter,” reports Robinson. In addition, tart white wines with a high acidity aren’t as appealing on board, while smooth, balanced styles taste more pleasant and tend to be real crowd-pleasers.

Decisions… Decisions

The solution? The best choices for airplane wine are food-friendly sips that are balanced in both acid and tannin. Some of the best wines enjoyed at altitude include Bordeaux blends and cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays from producers like Jordan Winery who make wines with balanced acidity and elegance, with less alcohol and tannin. That might explain why Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, available on Delta flights and in Delta and United airport lounges, was chosen as one of the Best American Red Wines by Global Traveler USA.

Many airlines work hard to perfect their in-flight menu to further hone an even more appealing list. Emirates and Singapore Airlines, who market themselves to the luxury traveler, serve wines like Dom Perignon, Krug Grand Cuvée and older vintages of Bordeaux. Even American Airlines is highlighting a unique array of both local and international wine producers, fully equipped with some pleasantly unconventional sherries. Can’t decide? When in doubt, Robinson advises, reach for the bubbly. “Champagne is my favorite wine of all to drink in-flight – and not just because I love Champagne. Expressive, great acidity, moderate alcohol–all very appreciated at altitude.”

If you are looking for a truly luxurious experience, without sacrificing your taste buds, cruise the skies in Boeing’s B787 “Dreamliner” which is known for higher air pressure, lower cabin altitude and higher humidity. This twin-engine jet airliner is well-stocked and boasts more than 400 of its kind. The result may leave you feeling more down-to-earth than you imagined, as you happily sip on your favorite Russian River Valley Chardonnay for the duration of the flight. We truly can’t think of a better way for you to embrace your airtime hours. Can you?

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About the Author

Born and raised in rural Kansas, Lisa Mattson fell in love with wine during college in South Florida and worked for a wine magazine before moving to Northern California. She spent almost a decade working as a writer, marketing director and photographer/videographer for Jordan Winery and now serves as a hospitality design and marketing consultant for several wineries, including Jordan. She also designs succulent gardens under the name Sonoma Succulents. When she’s not eating and sipping her way through Sonoma County in the summer and Baja California Sur in the winter, she travels the world with her husband in search of new succulents, ethnic foods, snorkeling spots and tiki bars.

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