Why Does Wine Taste Different in an Airplane? Insights from a Delta Airline Sommelier
If your taste buds don't function optimally at 35,000 feet, can you still discern the nuances of wine? The answer is a resounding yes, and Delta's master sommelier offers an explanation of how the airline's new wine selection addresses this challenge. When Delta recently undertook a comprehensive revamp of its wine offerings, covering both the main cabin international and higher-fare classes, it faced the unique challenge of wines tasting differently when you're cruising at 35,000 feet above the ground.
The reduced atmospheric pressure and dry cabin air create conditions that make your sense of smell and, subsequently, your palate less sensitive, impeding the detection of the full range of aromatics and flavor distinctions. "You can taste sweet, sour, bitter, salt, but you can't experience flavor," notes Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson, who has been guiding Delta's wine selections since 2007. To compensate for this, she focuses on specific characteristics.
"First and foremost, the textural elements in the wine counterbalance the dryness," she explains. For instance, acidity induces salivation, which contains enzymes that unlock flavor and maintain moisture, allowing flavor to be perceived.
When considering red wines, she avoids heavy tannins because they can feel rough, like sandpaper rather than velvet. This is why pinot noirs are particularly successful, as their tannins are softer and more supple. Robinson also seeks out red wines with "punchy fruit and fruit aromatics" because weak flavors tend to dissipate before reaching your palate.
In the case of white wines, she steers clear of those with subtle flavors. In her first year at Delta, she tested 60 bottles on a transcontinental flight and discovered that Italian pinot grigio "tastes kind of closer to lemon water—it's just too light." She prefers chardonnays and sauvignon blancs, among other varietals.
Delta's white wines, like all the wines on its menu, have to meet specific criteria, including availability, style, geographic diversity, and a balance of varietals. In curating the fall 2023 wine lineup, which is Delta's first new lineup since COVID, Robinson began with 1,300 contender wines from around the world. According to Mike Henny, managing director of onboard services operations at Delta, the selection is a combination of Robinson's recommendations, input from the airline's team, and offerings from suppliers and partners.
The airline also aims to represent a diverse range of geographical regions. This year, the wines are sourced from France, Spain, Italy, California, New Zealand, Oregon, South Africa, and Argentina.
Furthermore, Robinson actively seeks out wines that have a compelling narrative and reflect the diversity of the market. This includes reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines that are sustainably produced and owned or led by Black and female winemakers.
An exemplary case is Jordan Vineyard & Winery's cabernet sauvignon from the Alexander Valley, a classic California cab often found in steakhouses and served in Delta One cabins. It's led by head winemaker Maggie Kruse, who has been with the company since 2006 and utilizes solar power for about 75 percent of its electricity. The estate also maintains natural wild habitat on three-quarters of its property and supported local restaurants during the pandemic to help retain their workforce. The wine offers a delightful experience with supersoft tannins and subtle notes of vanilla.
In some instances, Robinson's team collaborates with winemakers to adjust flavor profiles. For instance, they helped refine the flavor of Pebble Lane cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, both of which are California certified sustainable, 100 percent wind powered, and California Green Medal winners. These wines, served in first class on domestic flights, have been modified to have less sweetness and oak flavor compared to their store-bought counterparts. Robinson notes that customer feedback and input from flight attendants influenced these modifications, as passengers prefer wines that aren't overly oaky or sweet.
In the end, after numerous taste tests, sometimes involving real-world customers, Robinson's list was trimmed down to 17 wines served across four different Delta tiers: Delta One, transcontinental and long-haul Hawai‘i flights, main cabin international, and first-class domestic. These wines rotate on and off the menus and won't all be available simultaneously. Main cabin domestic remains unchanged, featuring the three bottles of Imagery's cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, along with Une Femme The Betty.
If you're flying with Delta and have questions about these wines or how they pair with in-flight dishes, you may receive immediate answers. The company offers an online video course for flight attendants interested in becoming "Delta Sky Sommeliers." More than 3,200 flight attendants have completed and passed the course in previous years, and Delta's teams are currently enhancing the training program. For those who haven't taken the course yet, the information is also available on their SkyPro handheld devices.