"Does Wine Taste Different At 30,000 Feet?" The Truth About (Fine) Dining On Airplanes
On board its Paris-New York flights, France's La Compagnie is proud to offer its passengers a truly upscale gastronomic experience, with a selection of top wines. But does wine taste just as good at in the sky as it does on the ground? French daily Les Echos investigates.
PARIS — It’s quite a promise: this summer, passengers taking La Compagnie flights to New York will be treated to a gastronomic and an oenological experience of the highest order.
But how does one really taste up in the air? This question has been asked since the early days of commercial air travel, given the long-standing links between catering and aviation. As early as 1926, the French airline Air Union put a Léo H-213 "Rayon d'or" biplane into service as a restaurant plane, accommodating 12 guests on the Paris-London route. For the first time, a bartender employed by Compagnie des Wagons-Lits was on hand to serve food and beverages, including Champagne and Bordeaux wines.
As the decades went by, meal-time quickly became the highlight of the trip, thanks to aircraft improvements. The arrival of Air France's Constellation aircraft in 1946, followed by the Super Constellation in 1953, offered a whole new experience. Lobster, fine wine and a selection of meats carved right in the cabin would delight wealthy and demanding passengers.
In 1955, the American airline PanAm equipped itself with the first Boeing 707s, much faster jets, and also offered a top-of-the-range service. Maxim's signature menu and French crus, a 1953 Pouilly-Fuissé and a Saint-Emilion, the Château L'Arrosée 1952 which had just become a Grand Cru Classé.
Cellars in the sky
But the quintessence of refinement was reached on the Concorde, which entered service in 1969. The 1998 menu commemorating the Three Emperors' Dinner – which brought together Bismarck, Wilhelm I and Alexander II in Paris in 1867 – is just one example. To accompany fresh imperial caviar, lobster salad with truffles and guinea fowl supreme with champagne, was nothing less than a magnum of Roederer Cristal 1985. A 1988 Echezeaux Grand Cru or a fine 1986 Château TrotteVieille were also available.
Today, main airlines compete in the "Cellars in the Sky" competition, which tests the quality of their wine selections. At this year's 37th event, Singapore Airlines won the coveted title of "best airline cellar."
Emirates, for its part, has set up an aging cellar in France for some very fine Bordeaux wines, and is currently offering first-class passengers the chance to taste a Château Margaux 2004, a Cos d'Estournel 2005 or a Léoville Las Cases 1998. While great wines on the ground, they are not experienced the same up in the air.
"Very few people drink tomato juice on a daily basis, but it's particularly popular when flying," explains Gabriel Lepousez, neurobiologist at the Institut Pasteur's Perception and Memory Laboratory. It may seem trivial, but this example reveals how our senses change when we're on a plane.
800,000 bottles are uncorked each year in business and first class alone.
"The most decisive factor is undoubtedly the level of humidity. Typically 20% in most aircraft in service, this is well below the levels found in a conventional room, which are over 50%. This damages the mucous membranes of the nose, which contract, and as a result, the wines' aromas are not perceived as well, appearing less pronounced than usual. A similar effect is observed in the mouth. The drying out of the mucus increases the sensation of astringency and the hardness of the tannins," he explains. As if that weren't enough, recent studies have shown that the noisy environment of the cabin diminishes the intensity of flavors.
Combined with jet-lag fatigue and stress, all these factors combine to make tasting at 10,000 meters a tricky business. Wine selection must therefore take these difficulties into account beforehand, to offer passengers the best possible experience. For the past nine years, Paolo Basso, World's Best Sommelier 2013, has been selecting all the wines consumed on Air France.
This is a major challenge, since 800,000 bottles are uncorked each year in business and first class alone, in addition to the 1 million bottles of champagne offered to all passengers. "On board, the palate perceives more of the hard parts of a wine. Tannins, of course, but also acidity and mineral salts. So it's essential to choose wines that don't present any imbalance. Of the 2,000 wines we blind-taste every year, we don't select those with overly exuberant fruit ripeness or extravagant aging," he explains.
A can of Sauvignon white wine with a cheese and crackers platter in an airplane.
Preference for sparkling
Thierry Desseauve, co-founder of the specialist magazine "En Magnum", who is in charge of wine selection for La Compagnie, agrees: "We avoid wine styles that are too personalized, such as champagnes that have not been dosed or that have been aged in barrels," he says. "As a general rule, we prefer rather young wines, which retain an expressive fruitiness and limit the risk of irregularity from one bottle to the next after years of aging. Sauvignons, certain Chardonnays and even Viogniers, for example, will be highlighted for the whites."
Carbon dioxide multiplies aromas.
In general, Gabriel Lepousez suggests giving preference to sparkling wines, as carbon dioxide multiplies aromas, as well as wines with more umami - the fifth flavor, the "savory taste" (also found in tomato juice). These include wines that have undergone prolonged ageing on lees, such as muscadet, or white wines from granite terroirs, as well as vin jaune and sherries.
This is where La Compagnie stands out. This French company, which has the distinction of only offering business-class flights to New York, aims to offer a cutting-edge gastronomic experience at affordable fares. "We have a higher per-passenger budget than major airlines," explains Thierry Desseauve. "This enables us to present some very attractive bottles each month, such as a Château La Tour de Mons 2015 (Margaux) or a Château Margüi 2020 (Coteaux-Varois-en-Provence), perfectly matched to the dishes concocted by the in-house chef or associated renowned chefs."
Brand awareness also remains essential for passengers — hence the use of well-known appellations.
Each of these wines is also the subject of a video presentation on the domaine, in which the owner and Thierry Desseauve talk about the terroir and typology of the cuvée — one more step to appreciate the wine from the air. And here's some excellent news for the years to come: new aircraft on the market offer much higher levels of humidity in the cabin, promising richer experiences.
In the meantime, we're waiting to be able to taste wines during space flights. Some wineries are already working on it, such as Mumm with the recent creation of the Cordon Rouge Stellar cuvée, specially designed for this purpose.
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