Some time ago, I accepted an invitation from Air New Zealand to attend a wine tasting at Auckland Airport, then repeating the experience on a flight to Sydney. I wasn’t prepared for the difference. 

White wines that were perfectly palatable on the ground seemed to lose much of their fruitiness in the air. They also became noticeably thinner and more acidic. 

Airlines are aware of this phenomenon and deliberately counter the effect by selecting wines that are particularly fruity, full-bodied and low in acidity. My advice is to avoid high-acid varieties such as sauvignon blanc, riesling, most sparkling wines and chenin blanc and choose a classic low-acid, full-bodied and quite fruity pinot gris if it is available. Chardonnay is another option, but pinot gris is safer. 

I am not exactly sure why the taste and feel of wine change at high altitudes but it has something to do with the fact that liquids expand and contract with changes in atmospheric pressure. 

Red wines appear to become less fruity at high altitude and also become more astringent. Up there, the air loses moisture and dries out. When we are dehydrated, we find it harder to salivate. Our saliva contains protein. When we taste an astringent wine, the protein in our saliva wraps around the tannin molecules and makes the wine taste softer and less astringent. When our ability to produce saliva is impaired, as it is at high altitude, red wines become more astringent. The solution is simple: avoid big and astringent red wines such as cabernet sauvignon and, to a lesser degree, syrah and stick to softer reds such as pinot noir. 

Because we gradually become more dehydrated as the flight progresses, it pays to drink red wines earlier in the flight rather than later. 

Wine tastes better in a glass than in the plastic tumblers often served in economy class. I have considered taking my own glass on board but my wife has threatened to catch a later flight if I do. 

The trick is to moderate your alcohol intake, which can allow you to get into a reasonably restful state, even if it is not the most restorative sleep on offer. 

It is a good idea to step up your usual consumption of water while flying. Try drinking two glasses between every glass of wine and you will not only be less dehydrated, but your alcohol consumption will also drop, not least because you are spending a considerable amount of time walking to the toilet. 

Here’s an air-travel fact that should reduce the risk of inebriation: slow cabin service will automatically limit your alcohol intake. The way you dress and your general manner have a big bearing on how much you are served, according to flight attendants interviewed by London-based international magazine The Drinks Business. The general consensus was, “If you are rude and mean, we are not going to give you a free drink.” 

I call it “dress to excess”.

Bob’s Top Picks for in-flight sipping

2021 Dry River Pinot Gris, Martinborough

This is a great aircraft-friendly wine. It is lusciously fruity with a mouthfilling texture and subliminal acidity. Intense, flavoursome pinot gris that is a mix of honeysuckle, tropical flowers, ripe pear, mango, anise/spice, ginger and nutty yeast lees flavours. Very impressive, age-worthy wine. It blossomed as it sat in the glass and would benefit from aeration.

2021 Paddy Borthwick Paper Road Pinot Noir, Wairarapa

Perfect for drinking at high altitude. Masses of fruit, soft tannins and gentle acidity. Seductive pinot noir at a modest price. Attractive and accessible, with juicy red rose petal, cherry and raspberry flavours. It is an ethereal wine with a core of sweet fruit balanced by gentle acidity. Deliciously moreish wine.

Bob’s Top Pick for Terra Firma drinking

2021 Tony Bish Fat & Sassy Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay, $20.99

Best consumed at ground level, this wine will put a smile on your face, as it did on mine. Tony Bish certainly knows a lot about making good chardonnay but he earns extra points for making a wine of this quality at this price. Not particularly fat or sassy, but delicious anyway. Bright, high-energy chardonnay with peach/stone fruit, oyster shell, and subtle roasted nut flavours supported by tangy acidity. A lot of wine for the price.

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