You don’t have to drink as much wine as I do or fly on airplanes as much as I do…or drink as much wine on airplanes as I do to know that wine, and pretty much everything else tastes different up in the air.
In fact, a recent Cornell University study found that sense of taste is indeed altered in an aircraft. But not for the reasons you might think. In addition to factors like humidity and altitude, your sense of taste changes due to the loud noise level of the airplane environment – about 85 decibels in your typical jet.
The study tested 48 participants in varying noise levels and with five different tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami. They found that while sour, bitter and salty perceptions were unaffected, the sense of umami was heightened and even preferred, and that of sweetness was decreased.
The link from your inner ear to your taste buds might seem tenuous, but apparently the scientists at Cornell think that taste impulses are relayed from the tongue to the brain by the chorda tympani nerve via the middle ear…which is directly affected by the ambient noise level.
It might seem like a minor point – after all, I suspect very few folks fly a specific airline for its wine selection – but it’s good to know that several airlines take their wine lists seriously, and one, Air New Zealand, even has a wine consultant who has done his own studies on how wines taste differently up in the air.
Meet Jim Harré, an international wine judge (he studied winemaking and viniculture in Hawkes Bay), one of the Air New Zealand Wine Awards judges, and a former flight attendant and in-flight service director with over 30 years’ experience. All of that is why I trust his stratospheric sipping suggestions.
While at the 2014 Air New Zealand Wine Awards in Hawkes Bay, I pulled Jim aside for a quick chat about how he and his fellow wine consultant, John Belsham, choose the wines for Air New Zealand, why exactly your sense of taste is affected the way it is in an airplane cabin (prepare for talk of mucus membranes), and why New Zealand wines like crisply acidic Sauvignon Blancs and Rieslings, and some softly tannic Pinot Noirs, seem perfectly suited for in-flight service.
I’ll let Jim do the explaining below:
And don’t worry too much about flying’s effect on your liver. Apparently altitude is the major culprit of flight disorientation rather than alcohol since intoxication at high altitude only has a slightly more pronounced effect on cognitive ability. So find the wine that suits you and your high-altitude palate…and enjoy!