Wine with Altitude

Liam Steevenson MW, CEO/Founder

Wine has fascinated me for almost all my life.

The son of a wine merchant, I grew up with winemakers sitting round our kitchen table; foreign voices contemplating tastes and aromas. Holidays were not to the beach or the mountains, but instead were spent in vineyards and cellars, tasting rooms and restaurants. It was not until adulthood that I picked up a book on the subject but by that point I already had a deep understanding of scents, flavours, textures, how they related to where wines came from and how they were made.

Passing the Master of Wine exam was the last hurdle in my education, a point where I was supposed to feel in control of the subject, that I finally understood it all. Instead, all I felt was that while I knew more than I knew before, the subject was too big and developing at a too fast a rate; it was impossible to keep up. Does this bother me? Not in the slightest, because for me the allure of wine is found somewhere in the confusion, and in the conversations that confusion creates. Being both an art and a science, wine allows room for everyone to have a valid opinion.

As consumers, we are strangely entranced by the unknown element of wine and, to some degree, by its unpredictability. With the contents locked away under a cork, we spend large sums of money on bottles we won’t be certain we will enjoy, relying on the press, advice or past experiences to make decisions. If wine is, as it so often is compared, like art, then buying it can be likened to choosing art whilst wearing a blindfold.

Perhaps the greatest fascination, as well as frustration, with wine is its ability to change taste every time we pull the cork. The global branding giants have forever struggled to create the coca cola of the wine industry, with complete consistency being its Holy Grail, but consistency is the one characteristic that wine can never truly deliver.

The inevitable variations between vintages, with their complex constituents that evolve in the bottle over time; subtle fluctuations during productions; the cork seal that often imparts its own flavours-even if all the “other things” are equal (ceteris paribus and all that), wines we think we know well frequently surprise on taste.

The “other things” that affect flavours have long been taken into account by tasters; temperature, the shape of the glass, mood and the relationship with food. But there seem to be factors, more complex to understand, that are no less influential in how a wine shows itself. Consensus across the industry is hard to find, but humidity, atmospheric pressure and even the phases of the moon are now being considered as having an influence on what hits the palate.

Growing up a merchant’s son, a merchant I became as soon as I left university. My twenties were spent trawling the vineyards of Europe, tasting every wine that money or opportunity would allow. Fascinating it has been, but glamorous it is not-cellars are dank and uncomfortable places; vineyards are generally either too hot or too cold. However, an appointment as the buyer for Silverjet, the now-infamous first-class-only airline, changed all that. Suddenly, the flights were more exotic, the hotels more comfortable and the suits much sharper, but living the high life did not come without its own unique challenges.

We shipped wines from all over the world for the delights of our passengers. A brilliant winemaker in Central Otago bottled the most bright and concentrated pinot noir; in Spain, it was almost Impossible to believe that a dazzling young winemaker we found had created a verdejo so alive and vibrant in such a hot country; an old friend in Cairanne wowed all who tasted his wine, proof that the Rhone valley is still France’s best source of great-value, quality wine. Our press tastings were hugely successful, winning international awards for business-class wine selections, and we were on a high. Unfortunately, none of this really mattered to me because I was becoming increasingly aware of an issue that seemed to be going unnoticed. In the air, where these wines were being drunk, there was a serious problem; they really did not taste that great.

Sitting on a plane to New York, I joined the other passengers drinking champagne as we settled into the flight. While they seemed to be satisfied, I was concerned, and confused. The businessman next to me must have thought he was in for an entertaining flight when I ordered every wine on the list and worked my way through them. These were not the wines I had liked so much on the ground. The tannins and acidity were more pronounced, and the mid-palate weight was considerably lessened. The aromas were almost undetectable, the flavours seriously reduced. In simple terms, these were not the wines I thought I knew.

On the ground, I needed to address the situation urgently and the airlines connections gave me one of the worlds greatest’s palates to work with. Thomas Keller from The French Laundry was also working with airlines and suffered the same frustrations- his dishes needed accentuated flavours in order to retain their character. We both agreed that to make decisions for an airline, you have to make them in the air.

On the flight from Dubai we started pulling corks as the plane climbed slowly to 30,000 feet. Twelve hours earlier we had tasted the same eight wines and I’d taken detailed tasting notes to remind me of their various qualities. We tasted one hour into the flight and again after four.

Sixty minutes from the ground and the wines had already changed. Where had the fruit gone? Why were soft and easy wines now tasting angular and downright thin? By the second tasting, four hours later, the aromas and fruit flavours on the palate were becoming incredibly difficult to identify. There was no doubt about it; these wines had changed since we left the ground and were changing even more the longer we were in the air.

Rising out of my seat to return the bottles to the long-suffering cabin crew, I squeezed my swollen feet back into my shoes. I looked at the skin on my hands and noticed it was dry, and that my mouth seemed short of saliva. Was it the wines that were changing, or were we? Had our tasting ability been compromised? I looked around and took a deep breathe. A confined space full of people, yet I could hardly smell anything. Had my nose simply become used to its surrounds, or had the continuous highly-filtered air circulation sucked the living daylights out of any available aromas along with the humidity? Either way, this really was a horrendous place to sample wine.

How we selected wines changed after that flight. Fruit was central to every buying decision. If mid-palate weight was reduced in the air, then having plenty of it to start with was vital and we deliberately avoided white wines with too much acidity, focusing our attention on wines with as much lifted aroma as possible. Did the customers notice? I can’t be sure. Labels. Names and stories still sway customers more than belief in their own palates- it’s interesting that so many airlines persist in serving red wines from Bordeaux when they are so clearly unsuited to being drunk in the air. But at least we knew we were serving wines that stood up for themselves in the grueling conditions of the cabin.

Rising oil prices and a deepening recession put an end to the airline and thus to my wine adventures in the air. It was great fun and I learnt a lot, not lest that there are myriad factors that influence how we taste, as well as those that affect what wine tastes like. It’s a subtle but important distinction. Wine is a tricky beast that frustrates as much as it enthralls; fails to deliver as often as it captivates. Whenever I pull a cork for myself or for a customer, there is always a certain sense of the unknown. Do I mind? Not a bit. If there was a Coca Cola of wine would I buy it? Not a chance.

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