Wine served on planes
credits: Dollar Photo Club

Wine served on planes

Much is said about the taste of the food served in flights. The opinions are almost always the same: “plane food is stale.” This has been one of the main reasons for the development of studies organized by the airlines which, for decades now, invest to improve the gastronomic offer on board. But what happens to wine?


This was a question I got not long ago, to which the answer is: nothing very different from what happens to food. The problem is the airplane’s internal environment’s condition, and how it affects our senses. In other words, the problem isn’t always on the food and drinks served on board.

Altitude, low humidity (lower than 20%), and low atmospheric pressure are responsible for altering our senses. Our lips become dry, just as our nasal cavity and our palate, which decreases olfactory as well as our capacity of perceiving flavors. Taste buds lose sensitivity, especially when it comes to salty or sweet flavors – which, according to a few studies, are reduced in about 30% when we’re up in the air. Our perception of acidity and bitterness do not suffer significant changes, therefore when we have a glass of wine, tastes may become more intense.

If we take into account that the flavor is a multisensory combination formed by tastes, by sensations perceived in the mouth, and by the aromas, the loss of it is actually significant, since it causes a reduction on the perception of some smells and tastes. That explains the lack of flavor of some of the food we eat on a plane, even though it doesn’t justify the lack of quality of some dishes served on board (even when consumed down here, can taste badly).

Important airlines have hired experienced chefs and ordered studies in order to improve their gastronomic offer. Some perform simulations on land of the airplane conditions to make tastings, and pick the best dishes and drinks. Some opt for adding extra salt or spice to the food, which isn’t always appropriate for the passengers’ health. Other still offer the condiments in small portions, so the customer himself can flavor the dish as he wishes.

Another fact to be considered is that the food the passenger gets was prepared several hours before the flight, and is only heated on the place, since it is forbidden to have a cooker on board. To get things worse, a study has concluded that having something to eat in a noisy place also reduces the perception of a few tastes, such as salty and sweet.

Now, talking about wine a bit, let’s see what happens to it (experienced sommeliers are also hired by some of the airlines for picking the best bottles to be served on planes).

The first problem regarding wine served on airplanes is that, besides the movements and constant vibrations that can generate negative changes, we are not able to perceive the intensity and the quality of the aromas, which decreases the drink’s flavor. Products that are less aromatic will certainly seem tasteless.

Due to the low humidity of the environment, the mouth is dry, and the saliva’s lubricant power is lost, which increased the perception for acidity, bitterness, and astringency produced by tannins. This is one of the reasons we should avoid tannic, and acid wine while flying. In general, wine should be well-balanced and fruity, with moderate acidity and, in case of red wine, with mature, light, tannins. 

Wine from South America and Spanish ones can be good, even though we now know that up there they won’t taste the same as down here. Another interesting fact is that, according to medical information, the less oxygen there is, the lower is the metabolism. The metabolism of alcoholic drinks in the liver happens much slower when we’re flying, consequently producing higher alcoholic effect. That’s why, when up in the air, the best things to do is: drink little.

I am sure studies on the theme will go on for some time, and much will be increased. Maybe in the future the conditions inside a plane are different, and we’re able to enjoy the foods and drinks the same way we do it at home. Meanwhile, what I could say to you is to try and not create many expectations on what you consume on the airplanes.


Mario R. Leonardi



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