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Dear Dr. Vinny,
How much does altitude affect the taste of wine? What about cellaring wine at high altitude?
—Steven B., Czech Republic
First up, I need to squash the rumor that drinking alcohol at high altitudes will make you feel its effects sooner—multiple studies have proven that altitude alone does not have an effect on alcohol's potency. That’s not to say altitude won’t make you feel funny: I’ve personally experienced that light-headed, lethargic feeling of “altitude sickness,” and a glass of wine on top of that will certainly amplify those feelings.
The biggest difference about high altitude is the dryness—you’ll need to drink plenty of water, because wine will also dehydrate you, and if your nose and palate are dry, they aren’t working as well and a wine’s flavors can seem dull. Altitude can also make a wine seem unpleasantly sharp with tannins. Typically, tannic wines cause us to salivate, as a way to reduce their astringent effect. But if you’re dehydrated, you’re going to have trouble producing that moisture you need, so the wine might seem more tannic.
Then there are the high altitudes of being in an airplane. Enjoying wine is especially bad in a pressurized plane cabin, where the reduced air pressure and lower oxygen can cause a wine's aroma to dissipate more quickly. In a plane, acid and tannins can really stick out, so airlines tend to pick fruity wines that aren’t too tannic or acidic. As a fascinating aside—airplanes are also very loud, and studies have indicated that loud noises can distract from our ability to taste (and also offers at least a partial explanation for why airline food can be so disappointing).
Altitude won’t make a sealed bottle of wine age slower or longer, but once an older wine is open, there’s some good news. Years ago I answered a question about storing wines at high altitude, and sommelier and vintner Richard Betts pointed out that the lower atmospheric pressure means less relative oxygen in the air, and that causes wines to open up more slowly. "You get a protracted look at the evolution of older wines in the glass … they don't fall apart as quickly," Betts said.
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