Spanish Rioja is one of the best wines on earth AND in the sky–here’s why.

I have always loved all of the Rioja region’s wines – the lusty reds, the nutty-creamy traditional whites, and the dry and spicy rosados – especially at the table. But when I discovered in my work choosing wines for Delta Air Lines how incredibly well they show in-light, my respect for the region reached a whole new level (or, perhaps I should say altitude?). Here’s what makes drinking a Rioja flight when you are in-flight so fantastic. This video visit to the Rioja region is your backstage pass!

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Tasting wine in-flight is different from on land for two reasons:

  • The lower cabin pressure speeds up evaporation, dissipating the layers of scent. It is the scent of a wine that allows you to experience diverse flavors – like nuttiness in a Rioja white, or spicy-leatheriness in a Rioja red. The tongue only perceives the tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salt and umami.
  • The lower cabin humidity dries out your receptor for scent – your nose and olfactory nerves – reducing your ability to perceive flavor and nuance.

The classic Rioja wine styles that I love overcome these two handicaps with ease. Here’s how:

More complexity from aging – Red Rioja wines labeled Reserva or Gran Reserva are treated to longer barrel and bottle aging than most red wine styles, a minimum of 3 years for Reserva and 5 years for Gran Reserva. This gives the wines time to gain layers of flavor and complexity that power from the glass to your nose, providing plenty of pleasure to take in. White Riojas made in the traditional style – my favorite – also enjoy extended barrel aging that confers a heady browned butter and toasted nut quality that floats from the glass in abundant waves of yumminess. ‘Nuff said. Here’s a video tasting note on Luis Canas Rioja Blanco, in flight on Delta right now.

Moderate alcohols – Higher-alcohol wines can further dry out your flavor receptors, compounding the drying environment in the cabin.  In addition, higher alcohols in wine further speed up evaporation, further diffusing the complex aromas and flavors that mother nature and man collaborated to create in the wine. The Rioja wines I typically choose top out at 13.5%–lower than say, most popular American Chardonnay and Cabernets, which typically weigh in above 14%.

Pretty interesting, huh? In a future post I will talk about other wine styles that make a great showing at altitude. In the meantime, don’t wait until your next vacation to enjoy a Rioja flight. The wines are not only great, but often great values. Salud!