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Wine tasting at 38,000 feet

Wine tastes different at high altitude in a pressurized passenger plane, and last week I hosted a tasting at 38,000 feet for Emirates, on one of its new Airbus A380s.

During a Sydney-Auckland return trip I accompanied seven travel journalists, who were treated to the pleasures of the business class cabin. On the return leg, we tasted five wines sourced from the business and first class wine lists, and discussed the way Emirates takes altitude into account when selecting wine for the sharp end of the plane.

In a nutshell, low air pressure and low humidity affect the palate as well as our ability to perceive the flavours of food and wine. More intense flavours work better: spicier food, more aromatic and fruitier wine. Sparkling wine and Champagne work well, as do fragrant whites like sauvignon blanc and sauvignon-semillon blends. Low-tannin reds also work, such as pinot noir, and soft, ripe, fruit-sweet reds such as warm climate Australian shiraz and Argentinian malbec. Tannin seems more astringent at altitude so mellow tannins are desirable. An aged Bordeaux, such as Emirates’ 10-year-old Château Rauzan Gassies, work well.

Emirates also makes sure there’s a wine that matches each dish on the menu. We could have duck with Craggy Range Te Muna Road Pinot Noir 2011 (tasting), beef with ’04 Rauzan Gassies, salmon gravlax entrée with either Château Malartic Lagravière Blanc (80% sauvignon, 20% semillon) or Voyager Estate Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2012 (tasting), and mixed seafood in saffron cream sauce matched with either 2010 Savaterre Chardonnay (tasting) or Domaine Ferret Pouilly-Fuissé 2012. Not to mention the cheese plate with the Portuguese port, Quinta do Portal Colheita 2000. The pièce de résistance was the great 2004 Dom Perignon (tasting), alas only available in first class.

The big advantage with the A380 is that it’s the quietest airliner in service, and its cabin air is less dry – both features allowing us to better enjoy our wine and food. 

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