For wine lovers, being on a plane can mean flying the unfriendly skies, as a few sips often induce some major puckering.
But the problem is not the wine; it’s us. Specifically, it’s because being cooped up at high altitude in a dry, pressurized cabin tamps down our senses of smell and taste. (Other circumstances can affect our sense of taste; more on that follows.)
Fortunately, most airlines have come to realize the problem and have hired experts to choose wines that offset the effects of the altitude and cabin pressure.
“If you don’t have moisture, your olfactory sensory receptors — your mouth cavity and nasal passages — are dried out,” said Andrea Robinson, consulting master sommelier for Delta Air Lines. “Evaporation speeds up, the way it does in low-humidity places on the ground.”
The verdict: Big tannins and high acids bad. Ripe, round fruit flavors good.
“Wines with higher or more aggressive tannins are very likely to not show as well,” Robinson said. “Wines with bottle age, like older Riojas, we like because the tannins are honed and smooth, and bottle age creates a lot of complexity: leather, tobacco, cedar, potpourri, those secondary elements. That amplifies the drinking experience.”
Acidity, meanwhile “makes your mouth water, which helps, but excessive acidity can make the wine seem too tart or too sour,” Robinson said. “So in a flight setting, the high-acid wines might taste a little out of balance.
“Sweetness, frankly, is always a winner. There are two kinds: residual sugar or an off-dry style, but also the perceived sweetness of ripe fruit, that juicy, tender, plush fruit character of ripeness. That makes chardonnay from the New World [California, Chile, etc.] really successful … while a [more acidic] chablis can seem angular or tart.”
But — isn’t there always a “but” in the wine world? — there’s an outlier: Champagne and some other sparkling wines rock, despite their acidity.
Robinson has a theory on that. “I think it’s because even though acidity is elevated, there’s also in Champagne that time for the yeast [in the bottle, as the wine undergoes a second fermentation] and the acidity to really harmonize, and the yeast causes a roundness and a creaminess to evolve into the wine. It softens the impact and puts flesh on the bones, so to speak.”
Sound and fury Even down here on terra firma, a number of factors can diminish our appreciation of wine. In fact, most any distraction can be a detraction.
“In order for you to sense clearly, you need to have very little competition,” said sensory expert Steven J. Orfield, president of Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis.
“Everything about the complexity of an environment has an effect. If it’s too loud, too cold or too hot, if there are lots of smells in the place, your other senses won’t work as well,” he said.
That’s why it’s harder to appreciate wines if someone near you is wearing a lot of perfume or cologne. In a similar vein, a few years ago, some friends and I went to one of our favorite Oregon winery’s tasting room. An overserved bridesmaid party was in full boom, and none of the wines tasted good to any of us.
“Nothing should be substantially competing with wine,” said Orfield, who runs the nation’s only multisensory lab working in architecture and product development.
“Sensing is about the signal-to-noise ratio,” he said. “ [In loud places] with all the stimuli in your experience and all the cognitive stuff going on in your head, wine is going to be a background experience.”
There are four steps, Orfield said, in order to have a full sensation.
“You have to detect, recognize, scale and make a determination. If you don’t do those four, nothing else matters, and the more you’re distracted by anything, the more your senses are diminished.
“So if you’re in deep conversation, you might not be detecting the wine at all. You might not recognize it, might not even notice it or be able to judge it.”
These distractions are exacerbated for baby boomers. “As you get older, your senses become less sensitive,” Orfield said. “Your ability to discriminate is less, your adaptation time gets longer, and the power of interruptions gets stronger.”
Music to our eras, mouths
Sometimes, however, outside factors can alter our wine-drinking experiences in more interesting and even positive ways.
Research shows that if one’s surroundings are pleasing, wine will taste better. A recent Oxford University study found that people can derive up to 15 percent more pleasure from wine when listening to certain kinds of music.
Another British experiment, at Heriot-Watt University, found that people perceive wines to have characteristics of the music they’re listening to. Carl Orff’s often-thunderous “Carmina Burana” prompted sippers to consider their wines more powerful.
This opens up a whole new realm of “pairing” for those hosting wine-soaked dinner parties. They might want to heed one bit of advice from California winemaker and music-wine researcher Clark Smith:
“Never play polkas with any wine.”
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.