Why Does Wine Taste Different on a Plane? We Asked an Airline Sommelier.
If your taste buds don’t work well at 35,000 feet, can you even notice the subtleties of wine? Yes, you can—and Delta’s master sommelier explains how the airline’s new wine menu addresses that challenge.
When Delta decided to revamp its wine lists recently—across main cabin international and higher-fare classes—the airline couldn’t just sip and spit its way to a new drinks menu. For one thing, wines don’t taste the same when you’re 35,000 feet off the ground.
Due to the combination of reduced atmospheric pressure and the cabin’s dry air, your nose—and therefore your palate—are less sensitive and not able to detect all the aromatics and flavor differences. “You can taste sweet, sour, bitter, salt, but you can’t experience flavor,” says Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson, who’s been guiding Delta’s wine selections since 2007. To compensate, she looks for a few key characteristics.
“First of all, textural elements in the wine will counterbalance the dryness,” she explains. For example, acidity makes your mouth water. “That helps people secrete saliva, which has the enzymes that open up flavor and, secondly, keep everything moist so that flavor can actually be perceived.”
When considering red wines, she avoids heavy tannins because they seem rougher—like sandpaper instead of velvet. “That’s why pinot noirs are super successful, because their tannins are softer and more supple.” She also seeks out “punchy fruit and fruit aromatics” because weak flavors will dissipate before they reach your palate.
When it comes to white wines, she steers clear of anything too subtly flavored. During her first year at Delta, she took 60 bottles on a transcontinental flight so she could try them at altitude, 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 grapes.
While curating the fall 2023 wine lineup—which is Delta’s first new lineup since COVID—Robinson started with 1,300 contender wines from around the world. “[It’s] a combination of Andrea’s recommendations, recommendations from our own team, and what our suppliers and partners have on offer,” says Mike Henny, managing director of onboard services operations at Delta.
The airline also tries to represent a balance of geographies. This year the wines come from France, Spain, Italy, California, New Zealand, Oregon, South Africa, and Argentina.
In addition, Robinson actively pursues wines that have a story to tell and reflect the market’s diversity. This includes reds, whites, rosés, and sparklers that are sustainably produced and owned (or led) by Black and female winemakers.
A prime example: Jordan Vineyard & Winery’s cabernet sauvignon from the Alexander Valley is a classic California cab often found in steakhouses; it will be served in Delta One cabins. It’s led by head winemaker Maggie Kruse, who has been with the company since 2006, and it uses solar power for about 75 percent of its electricity, maintains natural wild habitat on three-quarters of its estate, and funded local restaurants during the pandemic so they could keep employing their workers. How does it taste? You might be struck by the supersoft tannins and subtle notes of vanilla.
In some cases, Robinson’s team works with winemakers to tweak flavor profiles. For example, she helped shape the Pebble Lane cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. (Both are California certified sustainable, 100 percent wind powered, and California Green Medal winners.) The wines, served in first class on domestic flights, have been modified from the way they taste if bought in stores, so there is less sweetness and oak flavor. “We know from customer feedback, and from flight attendants, they don’t want a big blousey, oaky chardonnay and they don’t want things that are cloyingly sweet,” she notes.
In the end, after many taste tests (sometimes with real-world customers), Robinson’s list was whittled 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. They won’t all be available at the same time; they rotate on and off menus. And main cabin domestic doesn’t get any new wines. The three bottles that remain are Imagery’s cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay and Une Femme The Betty.
If you’re flying Delta and have questions about these wines, or how they pair with on-flight dishes, you may be able to get an immediate answer. 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 (Delta’s teams are currently revamping the training program). And for those who haven’t taken the course yet, the info is also available on their SkyPro handheld devices.