John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for November 10th 2012

Drinking at 39,000 feet; Classic Piedmont; Top Ten Smart Buys and Premium Wine Gifts

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Ever wonder why you suddenly crave tomato juice when you’re flying? Do you also notice that wines don’t quite taste the same at 39k feet as they do on the ground? A rare Air Canada upgrade to business class last week on my way to the Jura afforded the chance to taste a couple of wines that I am more familiar with at sea level, and encouraged some investigation into the effects of altitude and air travel on taste perception. Flying does affect taste, so read on to find out why. I also highlight the Top Ten Smart Buys from the Vintages November 10th release, a half dozen wines from Piedmont, and five gift worthy bottles to consider as we get into the official season of giving and sharing.

Drinkers With An Altitude

I rarely drink tomato juice, even mixed with vodka the morning after. It’s not that I don’t like tomatoes; on the contrary, I eat a disproportionate amount of them. But I always seem to be into drinking something else. Except when I’m flying. When that seatbelt sign is extinguished and the drinks trolley finally rolls past, I suddenly get a craving for tomato juice, which I promptly order, along with a glass of white wine and some sparkling water (to make spritzers, of course, the only way to survive economy wine selections). It’s not just me, either; airline stewards report increased consumption of tomato juice during long flights. I often wondered where this spontaneous need for liquefied tomato comes from.

Airplanes and wineAs it turns out, not only does high-speed air travel slow down time, as per Einstein’s theory, but it also creates different atmospheric conditions that change your perception of smell and taste. In the search for scientific evidence to back my empirical experience, I came across a paper by Master of Wine Bob Campbell, who was invited by Air New Zealand to investigate taste differences of the same wines on and off the ground. Campbell’s article in turn led to a research paper by Leitthema Neuromarketing, which studied odor and taste perception in a simulated aircraft cabin. The study points to reduced atmospheric pressure, low humidity, reduced oxygen absorption, noise, cosmic radiation and magnetic-field exposure as possible explanations for the differences in taste and aroma perception between drinking on the ground and at 39,000 feet.

The abstract states, “At low pressure conditions, higher taste and odor thresholds of flavorants were generally observed with few exceptions. Salt, sugar, glutamate and most odorant thresholds increased clearly.” In other words, at cruising altitude, your taste perception is reduced, so that more “flavorants” are needed to produce the same intensity of taste as what you’d experience under regular atmospheric pressure on the ground. That means that more salt, sugar, spices and herbs are needed in the meals served on board an aircraft in order to satisfy our taste cravings.

Tomato JuiceSo why tomato juice? Because it tastes better at low atmospheric pressure. Under regular conditions, study subjects described the aromas as musty and earthy, while up in the air, the description changed to fruitier and clearly tomato-like. Likewise, the dominant tastes shifted from sour and salty to fruitier and clearly tomato-like, with sweeter tastes and a cooling, more refreshing sensation. No wonder I like it more in the air. I also believe that it has to do with tomato juice’s high glutamate content (the umami taste sensation), which people naturally crave. In lieu of a perfectly grilled T-bone steak, tomato juice is the most potent source of an umami hit at cruising altitude. At least that’s my theory.

Incidentally, one of the possible explanations for the observed changes in the threshold of perception also explains why you get unusually tired on flights: it’s a natural reaction to the condition called hypoxia. Hypoxia is essentially the result of reduced oxygen absorption, the first symptoms of which are fatigue and reduced mental performance. Airline cabin air has only about 70% of the oxygen found at sea level. And here I was thinking that my regular fatigue had to do with the wine-dosed press trips and their long days and short nights that usually precede the flight home.

Also interesting is that most airline chefs have concluded empirically that, contrary to sweet, salt and umami tastes, sour and bitter tastes need to be reduced. That’s because sour and bitter tastes sensations remain intact or can even increase at altitude, presumably partly as a result of the relative decrease in the other taste sensations (i.e. the balancing perception of sweetness decreases, exposing acid and bitter tastes). Which leads me to wine.

While en route to the Jura last week on Air Canada, I tasted two wines that I had previously reviewed for WineAlign: Henry of Pelham Sauvignon Blanc 2011 and Gérard Bertrand Minervois Syrah/Grenache 2009. I observed that at cruising altitude, the sauvignon blanc seemed lighter, more acidic, and lower in flavour intensity, with little evidence of the “lively, simple, fruity and crisp example of sauvignon blanc, with a nice mix of citrus flavours” that I described while tasting in the LCBO lab, just a few feet above Lake Ontario.

The Minervois, on the other hand, faired better at 39,000 feet. It was certainly more satisfying, and came closer to resembling the wine I described when tasted on earth as “A fine, spicy, fragrant, very minerally and schistous, dried mushroom-flavoured example, with exceptional complexity and class for the money”. But what did change was the texture: the wine was dryer and more astringent, with less “resolved tannins” as I had found before.

The observations of the study go a long way to explain the changes in perception of these two wines that I observed, at least the way I interpret it. The low-pressure environment of an airline cabin allows light aromatic molecules to escape quickly, leaving only “heavier” molecules available for olfactory enjoyment (while other factors also affect your ability to smell). And logically, the reduced humidity decreases your ability to salivate, literally drying you out. Since saliva is the natural buffer than balances acidic substances that you put your mouth – you salivate in part to regulate the pH, and since the protein in saliva also acts as a buffer to reduce the astringent sensation caused by tannins, a reduction in available saliva leads to an overall heightened sensation of acidity and astringency.

So, since light and fresh flavours are the first to go at altitude, the sauvignon lost much of what it had to offer, while the Minervois, with its deeper, more intense aromatics was still enjoyable to smell. Similarly when tasting, the diminished perception of the vaguely sweet taste of alcohol coupled with the shortage of saliva conspired to expose the high underlying acidity in the sauvignon, leaving a light, thin, sour wine in its place, while the Minervois with its more abundant alcohol and lower acidity was less affected, though the tannic astringency was slightly enhanced.

As for the effects of cosmic radiation and magnetic fields, I can only speculate (perhaps biodynamic wine producers can weigh in here). But this means that for airline wine programs, bigger, softer, rounder, sweeter and more intensely aromatic wines are preferred to fresh, light, dry and delicate. In the Leitthema study, an Amarone and a chardonnay Icewine performed best in the air. It seems cruising altitude affect wines in the opposite way that a movie camera affects actors: thinning them down rather than adding ten pounds. But don’t forget: if you’re not diggin’ the wine, there’s always the spritzer. Better for hydration, too.

Smart Buys for Drinking at Altitude

Quinta Dos Quatro Ventos ColheitaYalumba Organic Viognier 2011Dopff & Irion Vorbourg Pinot Gris 2009Notable highlights from the top ten smart buys that would perform well at cruising altitude include the 2009 Dopff & Irion Vorbourg Pinot Gris, Alsace Grand Cru ($17.95). The wine’s classic and amazingly intense botrytis-inflected character, with honey and ripe stone fruit, plus the medium-dry, full-bodied, rich and succulent palate would make this a great high altitude wine.

Another white that would still have flavour in outer space, I’d wager, is the 2011 Yalumba Organic Viognier ($16.95). WineAlign readers who attended the event with winemaker Louisa Rose last month at Crush Wine Bar know that Yalumba is a viognier specialist with the oldest plantings of the variety in Australia. This has textbook peach/apricot fruit and blossom aromatics, with more than a touch of pears in syrup and exotic jasmine. The palate is fullish, fat and glycerous, with a slightly sweet impression that would taste even nicer up in the air.

Similarly, the 2008 Quinta dos Quatro Ventos Colheita ($24.95) is a powerful, well-balanced and concentrated Douro red, packed with succulent black fruit that has more than enough intensity to handle low atmospheric pressure and increased cosmic radiation.

Smart Buys For Sea Level Sipping

Tilenus Envejecido En Roble 2007Château Peyros Tannat-Cabernet 2007As for wines best enjoyed on the ground, don’t miss the smart buy 2007 Tilenus Envejecido en Roble do Bierzo ($17.95). This is a paradigm for modern Spanish reds, fresh and lively, classy and elegant, with less wood influence than traditional Spanish reds. The palate bursts with black fruit and a touch of cold cream (typical), plus mineral-clay-slate notes, zesty acids and fine-grained tannins. Excellent length for the price category.

Too firm for drinking in the air but perfect for fans of well-structured old world reds on the ground is the 2007 Château Peyros Tannat/Cabernet ($14.95). It’s mature, savoury, earthy and leathery, reminiscent of nebbiolo in fact, with complexity well above the norm for the price category. Best served at sea level, decanted, alongside salty protein.

See the full list of the Top Ten Smart Buys.

Piedmont in the Spotlight

Vintages has assembled a fine collection of wines from Piedmont, the November 10th thematic. The styles and grape varieties on offer cover most of the bases, with emphasis on the classics. More importantly, all are delicious, and well priced. While at the very top end Piedmont is still expensive, it’s remarkable to see how the price of the mid-high end range has come down in the last half-decade or so. Where once $60 was the baseline price for decent Barolo, now you’ll find solid examples at $40 or even $30. Fans of Piedmontese wines, like me, are rejoicing. Pick anything from the list below and you’re sure to get a representative example:

Top Piedmont Selections

2007 Renato Ratti Marcenasco Barolo ($49.95)

2007 Giacosa Basarin Vigna Gianmaté Barbaresco ($38.95)

2004 Abbona Cerviano Barolo ($47.95)

2009 Poderi colla Nebbiolo d’Alba ($24.95)

2010 Giacomo Borgogno Barbera d’Alba Superiore ($19.95)

2010 Abbona Papà Celso Dogliani ($21.95)

Premium Gifts

And since it’s coming around to gift giving season, I’ve put together a list of five wines that tick off all the boxes for gift-worthiness, especially when you’re out to impress. These are namely:

1) From a famous appellation/region known for high quality

2) Expensive enough to be special without killing you (about 2-3x more than the average “good bottle of wine” price, in case the recipient checks)

3) Red (except Champagne and Burgundy, for which it’s ok to be rosé or white, respectively)

4) High-scoring with the critics (with me, at least; including a review with the wine is a nice touch)

5) Delicious

2002 Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut Rosé Champagne ($87.95)

2010 Le Vieux Donjon Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($53.95)

2008 Jonata Todos Red Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara ($59.95)

2010 Domaine Latour-Giraud Cuvée Charles Maxime Meursault ($44.95)

2010 Domaine de Vieux Télégraphe Télégramme Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($46.95)

Gourmet Food & Wine Show

Don’t miss the annual Szabo vs Szabo no holds barred jiyu kumite (with wine, not swords) at the Gourmet Food and Wine Show on Friday, November 16th, 7:30-9pm.

Cutting Edge Wines
John Szabo MS & Zoltan Szabo
Renowned Sommeliers

$95 | 7:30 – 9:00 Friday November 16th, 2012

The dynamic duo of master tasters returns for what promises to be another sold-out seminar. John and Zoltan both currently work with the famed Trump Hotel in Toronto while they continue to consult, write, judge and travel. As leading sommeliers for over a decade, they are in tune with the most progressive winemakers, interesting grapes and dynamic new wine regions. Learn from Canada’s foremost wine experts as they present eight cutting-edge wines.  Order Tickets here.


John Szabo, Master Sommelier

From the November 10, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Top Piedmont Selections
All Reviews


Saltram Mamre Brook Shiraz