Too varietal? Try it in the sky.

By Panos Kakaviatos for

8 February 2017

Yesterday, I landed in Frankfurt after flying on business with Lufthansa from Washington Dulles Airport, and the welcome lounge was terrific: well worth the price of paying business.

Lufthansa offers competitive business pricing – sometimes nearly half the price of, say, Air France. And when you cross the Atlantic from a late afternoon in the U.S. to arrive at an early morning in Europe, the welcome lounge’s spacious, independent shower rooms are just the ticket. Not to mention plenty of breakfast and brunch items (as it is open until noon), a quiet area with reclining seats, and work stations with no less than three types of outlets (UK, US and European).

As usual, I enjoyed excellent service on board the 747-800 from Dulles International to Frankfurt. The stewards and stewardesses were kind and courteous. And when I mentioned that I write about wine and that I know Lufthansa wine buying consultant Markus Del Monego, they proposed two selections from the first-class wine list.

I once flew first class several years ago – a fluke upgrade, see video below – and recall seeing the Château Belgrave 2004 on the list. Today, the same wine is proposed, but it is the 2008 vintage. Personally, I would think that for an expensive first class ticket, the Bordeaux could be higher up on the totem poll. Not Latour, mind you, but why not Lynch Bages or Montrose? I digress.

Wine for your sky high senses

One should realize that your senses high in the sky are more numb than they are on the ground. Low cabin pressure results in less oxygen reaching your blood, which makes your odor and taste receptors less sensitive, according to this report.

Furthermore, mucus expands in the low pressure environment, which makes it harder to taste. As airlines keep the cabin at about 10 to 15 percent humidity, that also dries out your nose and mouth, cutting down your sense of taste as well.

So airplane food often tastes bland (when not downright awful, in some cases). But tomato juice can taste better in an airplane. Perhaps because it seems less aggressive? As an in-flight expert told the BBC: “Taste buds and sense of smell are the first things to go at 30,000 feet” and  “flavor is a combination of both, and our perception of saltiness and sweetness drop when inside a pressurized cabin.”

But what can explain the success of flying with tomato juice can also explain the success of certain types of wine.

The German Riesling came off more bland, while the typical varietal exuberance of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc seemed more toned down, high in the sky!

Take for example my experience on the Washington-Frankfurt flight this month. It was interesting that a subtle Vollmer German Riesling Spätlese seemed somewhat bland high in the sky, while a more varietally-expressive Babich Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc came off much less much less grassy than I would have thought – although it was still somewhat grassy.

The airline conditions muted the varietal aspect, so the New Zealand wine went rather well with a shrimp starter. Although I could have just as easily stayed with the Duval Leroy Champagne.

The reds that I enjoyed with the main course came from the first class menu. Many thanks to the kind stewardess who suggested I try two bold reds, which she emphasized that I would like. I suppose that their bold aspects were toned down by the high-in-the-sky atmosphere. So bigger, more broad-shouldered wines that come across as “too much” back on the Earth’s surface taste different in the clouds.

First was Miguel Torres “Salmos” Priorat 2009 – a blend of Garnacha, Syrah, Carinena and Cabernet Sauvignon. At first, it was a bit like rubber hitting the road. Time in glass brings more balance and the impression of asphalt/rubber dissipates. It went well with the steak.

However, even better with the food was the Bernard Series Small Barrel SMV Bellingham blend of Syrah, Mourvèdre and Viognier from South Africa, in the 2011 vintage. From the get-go, it came across rather fresh. Was it the Viognier? The Mourvèdre seemed to lend backbone and the Syrah pleasing dark ripe fruit. Apparently only 30 barrels were produced, and it was delicious.

Wine descriptions

As you can see in the video below from a previous flight on business, Lufthansa is a fine airline, with great service and smiling, friendly flight attendants.

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