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June 8, 2017

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Go for fruity wines while flying or at high altitude

ISACS is the founder and CEO of EnjoyGourmet, a leading gourmet digital ( and print media company in China. He has authored over a dozen wine and food books including the awarded ISACS Guides and other gourmet books and is a wine consultant to governments, wine regions and organizations. He also hosts wine events for leading organizations and companies throughout China. Contact John via

Have you ever noticed that some foods taste delicious at higher altitudes and while flying but awful otherwise. For people who fly as often as I do this is an important issue. Today’s iDeal feature story introduces the yummy world of Chinese pastries and pancakes. Whether Chinese or western, most baked retain their delicious qualities at high altitudes.

This week I’m working with one of China’s leading airlines to taste and choose wines for their flights as well as VIP lounges. I’m happy to report that several top domestic carriers are placing greater emphasis on serving fine wines. Some wines perform well at both high altitudes and in aircraft cabins during flight, but many do not. The lower levels of oxygen, higher pressure and humidity often changes the performance of wine. This less than ideal environment also over a period of time degrades one’s ability to taste with some studies claiming travelers may lose as much as 30 percent of their taste acuteness.

Many delicate, complex and well-structured wines that are simply delightful at sea level loose much of their appeal at altitude. So what’s a good wine to choose when you’re flying or when visiting a high elevated city like Lhasa? The best answer is a combination of overt fruitiness and balance.

Wine professionals working with airlines almost uniformly agree that fruit forward wines with moderate tannins and mild acidity are the most flight friendly wines. This is because ripe and fruity wines retain their best attributes and are still quite pleasant in a dry, high altitude environment while less fruity and more tannic red wines tend to become overly tannic and acidic whites become too tart. Therefore, the next time you ride the jet streams in the less than pleasant compressed environment of modern aircraft, choose fruity wines over very structured or lean wines.

Whites that preform nicely at altitude include New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, Napa and Chilean Chardonnays as long as they’re not overly oaked and Pinot Grigio and Soave wines from Italy. Flight friendly red styles include California Merlot and Zinfandel, Chilean Carmenere and Merlot, Argentinian Malbec, Barossa Shiraz and Old Vine Grenache as well as Italian Amarone. It’s also important to note that wines oxidize more slowly at altitude so serious wines like the aforementioned Amarone need quite some time in your glass to develop and reach their potential.

Lovers of Bordeaux reds should be aware that the same Cabernet Sauvignon dominated, well-structured Right Bank Bordeaux you adore at sea level may well disappoint you while flying as the tannins in the wine may be overly aggressive. If Bordeaux is a must, then I suggest picking a softer and fruitier Merlot centric wine from the Right Bank appellations of Bordeaux like Saint Emilion or Pomerol.

Despite the fact that all good Champagnes and CAVA sparklers are well-structured with good acidity, fuller bodied examples with good ripeness are usually exceedingly pleasant in flight. Slightly sweeter Extra Dry Proseccos also perform well. Among the best performing frequent fliers are sweet wines including many German Rieslings and French Sauternes and fortified wines like Sherry and Port. On average New World wines with their greater up-front and more obvious fruit tend to outperform many Old World wines, but there are notable exceptions. One of the flight friendly styles of wines comes from the Northern Rhone.

Saint Joseph and Crozes Hermitage

The best wines of the Northern Rhone are unquestionably the great Hermitage and Cote Rotie reds. These grand Syrah dominated wines are among the most concentrated, complex and lengthy wines in the world. But it’s exactly these serious and reflection-worthy qualities that don’t work as well at altitude, instead two lesser Northern Rhone reds with easier, more obvious fruit qualities and softer tannins are less compromised by high and dry environments.

Saint-Joseph is a not considered among the elite regions of the northern Rhône and it’s not as fashionable as Cornas, a rising Northern Rhone star. Yet good St Josephs share many of their characteristics while being more accessible. The long narrow part of the Northern Rhone that produces Saint Joseph makes wines that offer an excellent combination of supple fruit, accessibility and distinctiveness. This less serious style with plenty of friendly fruitiness and spice makes them fine wines to savor while flying.

Crozes-Hermitage reds tend to be even lighter and less serious than Saint Joseph wines but they share the latter’s lively fruit and spicy characteristics. These qualities also help them excel at altitude. Crozes-Hermitage is the largest AC in the Northern Rhone accounting for half of the region’s production and relatedly they are the most affordable Northern Rhone reds. In addition to being champion high-altitude performers, both Saint Joseph and Croze-Hermitage wines perform perfectly well at sea level. They also have an affinity for moderately spicy Sichuan and Hunan dishes like mapo spicy tofu, wok-fried pig intestines with chilies and cumin, garlic and chili spiced pork ribs.

Some of the recommended producers Saint Joseph and Croze Hermitage that have wines available in Shanghai are Chapoutier, JL Chave, Nicolas Perrin, Domaine Auguste, Domaine Barrou and Ferme des Sept Lunes.

Where to buy in Shanghai

Varieties: Syrah is the most important red variety in the Northern Rhone comprising the lion’s share of the best wines of the region.

Key term: Fruit forward is a wine term to describe both white and red wines that are defined by their abundant fruitiness.


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