Which wines taste best when flying?

VistaJet has conducted a series of experiments to see which wines work best at altitude. Alasdair Whyte spent an evening tasting with Thomas Flohr and various wine experts.

GERMANY IS A country better known for its (excellent) beer rather than for its tomato harvest. Despite this, Lufthansa serves far more Bloody Marys than lager on its flights. It is not alone. There is a reason why the Bloody Mary is firmly established as the most popular cocktail for commercial airline passengers.

Research shows that this is a combination of the cabin pressure and noise. At an air pressure equivalent of 8,500 feet (such as in a commercial aircraft) your ability to sense sweetness falls by 20%, while your ability to taste saltiness rises by 30%. The noise of the aircraft – in a commercial jet typically 85 decibels (which is actually loud enough to cause ear damage at long exposures) – also affects your perception of smell and taste.

Large-cabin business jets offer a much better cabin experience. They are significantly quieter and have a lower cabin pressure – roughly equivalent to 4,500 feet for a Global 6000 flying at 45,000 feet, but even this can affect taste.

Thomas Flohr, founder and chairman of VistaJet, is also a keen wine collector, and discovered this difference first hand. He had been given a bottle of wine he had been looking forward to drinking, but was disappointed when he tried it while flying. He realised that he should have drunk it on the ground. After this happened, he decided to find out which wines work at altitude. And when he puts his mind to things they happen.

Thomas Flohr, founder of VistaJet, combining two of his passions.

The panel tasted on the ground in both Burgundy and Bordeaux...

..and flying onboard a VistaJet Global 6000

In the summer of 2018, Flohr and Tom “wine chap” Harrow, a wine consultant and writer, gathered together a group of wine experts. They comprised: Allegra Antinori, vice president of Italian winemaker Marchesi Antinori, which was founded in 1385; Nina Caplan, an award-winning wine writer; Charles Chevallier, ambassador, Château Lafite Rothschild; Jan Konetzki, ambassador, Château Latour; Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University; and Maurizio Zanella, founder of Ca’ del Bosco, the Italian vineyard.

The panel tasted wines on the ground in both Burgundy and Bordeaux and then again while flying on a Global 6000. Wines were decantated for the same amount of time and drunk from identical Riedel glasses. The experts tasted a selection of sparkling wines, chardonnays, two pinot noirs, a mixture of Bordeaux blends and a variety of New World red wines.

“We have always known that some wines work in the air and that some don’t, so it was really exciting to have a chance to look at this scientifically,” says Harrow.

Their most exciting finding is that some wines improve at altitude. “Many wines actually taste better in the air,” says Flohr. “The differences can be very striking and you can tell from the very first taste.

“I love the idea of trying wines from high altitude wineries so when flying you are experiencing the wines just as the growers do."

The panel did not all agree on every wine (which is normal for experts). They all said that it was harder to pick up on the flavours of lighter wines or the subtleties in older vintages. However, wines that were too young struggled to breath at lower pressures.

As well as taste, Harrow and VistaJet examined the science of tasting at altitude. “The bubbles in sparkling wine contain up to 30 times more aromas than the liquid,” says Harrow. “This is important because at higher pressures they rise and pop quicker. You need to make sure that you go for a wine with strong exoskeleton to stand up.” In a simpler language, he recommends sparkling wines that have been fermented or partially aged in oak casks.

The same is true for white wines. Flohr, Harrow and the panel also recommend “cautiously oaked” vintages and “fruit-forward white Burgundy vintages.”

When looking for reds, they recommend ripe Pinot Noirs as well as Bordeaux, Cabernet and Merlot blends from recent vintages. You should avoid older wines with sediment as this will get suspended in the wine. The panel also liked New World reds, although these can also benefit from being served at a slightly warmer temperature – around 20 Celsius/ 68 Fahrenheit.

VistaJet is keen to do more with wine. It has launched The VistaJet Wine Club, is offering exclusive wine tours and has also created a book - The Wine in the Sky Questionnaire.

Harrow is intrigued by the idea of drinking wines that were grown at a similar altitude. “I love the idea of trying wines from high altitude wineries so when flying you are experiencing the wines just as the growers do."