Monday, February 23, 2009

Wine and Airplanes

A friend asked me recently about taking wine on airplanes, and it made me think. I fondly remember traveling in the 20th century, when you could pack your carry-on luggage with eight or ten bottles on a transatlantic flight (and then try to act all nonchalant while walking through customs, pretending as if you really didn’t have 35 pounds of liquid and glass hanging off of your shoulder). Obviously those days are forever in the past. Soon you will be prohibited from carrying absolutely anything on board, unless you pay 50 dollars per pound and have it inspected fourteen times by people whose job it is to actually prevent you from reaching your gate until fifteen minutes after your plane takes off.

Now I put my wine in a six-pack cardboard shipper and check it in. (I carry on all of my shoes, though, complete with wooden trees.) It changes the type of wine that you can bring—in the past I used to carry mostly old and rare wines, since what’s the point of taking a common wine to someplace where you can just buy the same bottle anyway? When you check the wine in, it gets shaken around much more, which is annoying, and so now I tend to choose wines that are younger and less fragile but that are still maybe rare enough that people at my destination aren’t able to easily obtain them.

But when my friend asked me about this, it made me wonder, what about the pressure? Does the act of transporting bottles in a luggage compartment at 30,000 feet have an effect on the wine? I suppose the compartment is pressurized, so it’s the same as inside the cabin? What happens to the pressure inside a bottle of champagne? I’ve never opened a bottle of champagne on a plane, nor have I paid much attention when flight attendants do.

Being woefully ignorant of the physical science that governs such things, I really have no answers, but I’m sure that some of you do. Perhaps I could persuade the Chief of Lab Science to refer this matter to his Department of Aviation and Aeronautics?


Managing Principal, Labstuff said...

Hi Peter,

I should mention it is pure serendipity I know anything about this. Although we did run some trials on shipped wine that might be related.

On commercial airlines, the cabin is pressurized to an equivalent of 8000 feet above sea-level. That's why your ears pop on descent and why scuba divers have to wait to fly. I think the effect of this pressure is negligible when opening Champagne on board (and unless you're in First Class or on an Air France flight, there's little reason to test this).

However, the cargo areas of a plane are not similarly pressurized. But so long as your corks remain in place, the pressure won't impact what's in the bottle. However, you are right to note that the vigorous shaking of baggage handlers and the more gentle but constant shaking of the aircraft in flight can have a deleterious effect on your wine. Given that, I think your strategy is the right one.

Lab visitors often note that I am more comfortable in ignorance than expertise. And that it's rare that I know what I'm talking about.

Given both, I think we shall declare this moment a milestone!

J David

PS. I was promoted to Managing Principal.

nedhoey said...

I must dispute the assertion that the cargo area is not pressurized. It is, and for several reasons, pets are transported there, but engineering wise it's impractical to create a pressure tight seal between the passenger area and the cargo area. It's much easier to pressurize the entire cylinder of the planes body.
When it comes to wine the pressure issue is about variations and the speed with which they happen.
Fairly sudden changes can dislodge wet corks, for example.

haonusa said...

Another benefit of being able to bring wine on board was that you could occasionally, in the good old days, find a stewardess who would serve you your own wine while in flight. I fondly remember sharing a couple bottles of Burgundy with fellow travelers while flying from San Francisco to Dallas pre 9/11.

Managing Principal, Labstuff said...

Ned, you're right. I should have been more clear. The cargo areas of the plane are pressurized, but not maintained as evenly as in the passenger cabin. And they are definitely not temperature controlled. It is indeed an issue of structural engineering. But not pets. I've heard 5000 pets a year don't make it on commercial flights in the US. Might be urban legend, but most pet groups recommend taking them in the cabin.

Henri Vasnier said...

Pressure inside a bottle of fully mousseux champagne is six atmospheres or so. Consider a hypothetical bottle in orbit (exterior pressure zero) versus on earth at sea level (exterior pressure one atmosphere): less than a 20% increase in inside to outside differential pressure, which is undoubtedly within the engineering tolerance of the bottle. Obviously the wine will have somewhat more tendency to foam out of the bottle if opened at altitude.

Jeremy said...

Your Champagne or wine, given recovery time for the shaking, would no doubt be completely fine, but it is worth knowing that pressure does indeed affect Champagne. I have foolishly served Champagne while up in the mountains, during ski trips, and wines that I knew to be fine and elegant came out all frothy, with bigger bubbles. Learning from this, it is worth opening them ahead of time and giving them more time in the glass. Or it can be a good place to taste very old, almost flat champagne.

Beyond the difference in pressure, there is also less oxygen in altitude. Old still wines, in places like Aspen, move in slow motion past opening on the oxidation front. A friend of mine working there as a sommelier tells me he feels the wines need twice the decanting time.

Peter Liem said...

Very, very intriguing. Thanks, all of you. Makes me want to open a bottle of champagne on a plane, open one at high altitude, and open one in orbit. Maybe someday.

Gabriel said...

Next, submarines!

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