The enjoyment of both food and wine is challenged by aircraft conditions. Cabin air pressure is low (around three-quarters of sea-level pressure) and the air is drier (7-15 per cent humidity instead of the usual 50-70 per cent). The sense of taste depends on the sense of smell, and both are adversely affected.

Research on the effects of space flight on smell show that lower air pressure reduces the air circulation in the nasal mucosa (the lining of the nasal passages), which is responsible for the transfer of aromatic compounds to the olfactory receptors that detect aromas; this is why astronauts frequently compain of tasteless food; dry air also makes aromatic perception more difficult.

Vibrations and sound have also been shown to heighten the perception of bitterness and acidity, and reduce the perception of sweetness; and of course both vibration and sound are inevitable on any flight.

At the Fraunhofer Institut in Holzkirchen, Bavaria, a hyperbaric chamber is used to replicate aircraft conditions. This pressurised replica cabin is used for tasting in-flight meals and drinks. The Institut’s research, in collaboration with Markus Del Monego MW (one of the world’s top sommeliers), has made many discoveries, but three of his key findings about wine include:

  • Aromatic perception on board is lower, so wines taste weaker (lower in alcohol) than they are.
  • Acidity and bitterness perception increases.
  • Sweetness (and saltiness) perception decreases.

Wines with more fruit, and lower acidity and tannins will perform better in the air; wines that are tannic will have that bitter quality exaggerated.

Every year, Business Traveller conducts a blind tasting of around 250 airlines from more than 30 airlines to choose the best wines served on airlines. This event, called Cellars in the Sky, is judged by some of the UK’s leading  wine tasters. The Cellars in the Sky judges take these airborne changes into consideration when judging the wines, and when selecting the winners.