Wines do have to be of great quality; you would expect nothing less when you can afford to travel by private jet. But not every style of wine is suitable for being enjoyed at altitude.
NetJets, who I went to visit to find out more about the art of wine at altitude, think about the experience as a whole. It is not just about the taste; how is the experience of wine tasting going to be affected at altitude? Is it the wine that changes, or is it us?
Air pressure, humidity and noise
Flying is not always the most comfortable experience, unless you fly in private jets, and our senses as a whole tend to be negatively affected. The drying effect of the low humidity in the cabin blurs our olfactory senses – our smell and taste receptors. With our palates being less sensitive, this can alter our perception of certain flavours and aromas.
We lose the ability to taste fruit and sense sweetness, so wines consequently can seem more austere and lean.
The noise of the engines also affects our ability to taste wine, or at least our enjoyment of it. Loud noises might distract us from our other senses, and create an emotive response which can hinder the enjoyment of food and wine.
Alcohol can seem more pronounced at altitude too, and some think that we feel the effects of alcohol quicker, so it’s important to avoid high alcohol wines.
Furthermore, as wines age, they lose their primary fruit characteristics and develop more secondary and tertiary fruit characters, like dried fruit and nuts, as well as more subtle and complex flavours. But this does not bode well for inflight tipples.
Other considerations – Storage
If you are lucky enough to fly in a private jet, wouldn’t it be great to have an endless choice of wines on board or a 300 bin wine list to match the top restaurants?
But in practical terms, the lack of storage space means that is simply not possible. So the wine list must be thoroughly thought through, offering wines to appeal to a range of tastes.
NetJets have two whites and two reds on offer on their smaller jets, with the addition of Champagne on their larger aircraft.
The audience is generally very knowledgeable about wine, therefore NetJets say their biggest challenge is finding delicious high end wines combined with the logistical element of what they can physically stock on board.
This means only being able to stock half sized bottles on the smaller jets, and this complicates matters because not every producer makes wine in half formats.
However, through Wine Source, NetJets global fine wine supplier, they have been able to offer exclusive bottlings of wines they think are the perfect fit for their high-altitude oenophiles. Tyler winery, based in Santa Barbara, California, for example, have created half bottles of their 2016 Chardonnay exclusively for NetJets. Joni Fillion from Wine Source described the wine as ‘rich and buttery, but with balancing acidity’.
Food and wine choices
As a result, Fillion says they are trying to find balanced wines with lots of flavour.
‘We choose younger wines that have sharper flavour profiles,’ said Fillion.
In the larger aircraft, clients have access to three famous Champagnes: Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, Ruinart Rosé, and Krug.
Even though low cabin pressure can result in fewer bubbles, Champagne is arguably still a great choice for inflight imbibing because of its rich, full bodied nature.
The two reds on offer in the NetJets aircraft – a 2017 100% Grenache based Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Clos St Antonin and the super-Tuscan Tassinaia 2014 from Castello di Terriccio, at only 13% ABV – were also chosen for their concentrated flavour and aroma profiles.
As for the whites, the Les Belles Dames Sancerre 2017 is part of their white wine range. ‘It is a very fresh, old school style of Sancerre that is full of gooseberries, green pepper and green grass.’ This should provide welcome freshness and enough intensity of flavour to pair well with a wide range of dishes in an inflight dining menu.
Fillion says that the menu created by the head chef is something else they consider when sourcing the wines.
Tom Ville, a spokesperson for NetJets, said that the food menu is unique for each location, which must be logistically painstaking. The head chef works with local produce from where the plane is flying from, and develops menus based around that, to create the best experience.
Despite the cost of flying on a private jet, you might not get your own sommelier to serve you your wine – in fact you may not have a cabin crew at all.
Due to the small size of some of the NetJets private aircrafts there are often no staff, therefore the clients must serve the wines themselves. On the larger aircraft however, the staff are trained in wine service basics, as well as wine tasting and food and wine pairing.
On the up
To further their knowledge of wines at altitude, Wine Source plan to conduct a study by flying a case of wine around the world and then blind tasting it, in order to determine whether this has an actual effect on the physical nature of the wine, or whether the changes in taste and smell that occur at altitude are purely to do with how we perceive the wine.
It makes me consider how the environment in which we are in can really alter our perception and enjoyment of wine. This doesn’t have to go as far as tasting wine at 30,000 feet; for example having a neutral-coloured, odour-free, quiet environment on terra firma is important, especially when judging and scoring wines.
There have also been studies about how listening to different types of music whilst drinking wine might affect how it tastes – although I am yet to test that theory myself.
In my experience wine also performs differently depending on who you are tasting or drinking it with; Michael Broadbent had a point when he said “drinking good wine with good food in good company is one of life’s most civilised pleasures” – and I can only imagine that enjoying a glass of Tassinaia 2014 on board a private jet has a similar effect.