Why does wine taste better on holiday?

Jonathan Goodall / 27 June 2016

Have you ever found that wine tastes much better abroad? Jonathan Goodall looks at some of the interesting theories that explain why wine tastes better on holiday.

As the first wisps of smoke rise from the barbecue and the sun slowly sinks into the Mediterranean, it’s too easy to fall for the rustic charms of a rough and ready local wine. 

Back home, struggling to light the BBQ in a fine drizzle, it still tastes rough but not at all ready. We might even wonder, as we stab the coals in frustration, if our rustic rouge might be inflammable.

Supermarket wine buyers make it a rule never to buy wines in the vineyard for fear of being swept away by the ambiance and viewing the wine through rosé-tinted spectacles. They won’t sign on the line – Man From Del Monte take note – until the wine’s been tasted on a wet Wednesday in Watford. 

Similarly, airlines won’t stock any wine that hasn’t been tasted in a pressurised cabin where wines generally appear flatter and duller. That’s because low-pressure, low-humidity conditions dehydrate the body, desensitising our taste buds and nasal receptors. In this environment sweetness and fruit are diminished while acidity and tannins are accentuated. 

It is proof positive that our ability to taste, and hence our perceptions of food and drink, change with the environment.

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The research

Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, sought to demonstrate the profound effects of colour and sound on our perceptions of taste. More than 3,000 people entered the professor’s ‘Colour Lab’ at a ‘Streets of Spain’ event on London’s Southbank, sponsored by Spanish wine company Campo Viejo. 

They were tasked with tasting the same wine under red and green lights to a changing soundtrack (rather how I imagine a nightclub). 

In a nutshell, the wine tasted sweeter and fruitier under red lights with soft, flowing music, and sharper, sour even, under green lights with choppy, staccato music. 

Preference swings of 10 to 15% were recorded, which, according to Spence, is “the same as someone moving from being ambivalent about the taste of something to really liking it. And, with this experiment, that shift happened in seconds.” 

The experiment provides a practical demonstration of synaesthesia, where you experience a sensation through a sense other than the one being stimulated. For example, when a sound evokes sensations of colour. 

Perhaps when we are on holiday we experience synaesthesia writ large. Whether we are drinking on a plane, in a nightclub or on holiday, it is generally accepted that it is our perceptions, and not the wine, that is changing. 

Read our wine tasting tips for find out about the key taste areas of wine

Can wine travel?

The tired argument that wine “doesn’t travel well” holds little water in these days of super-hygienic winemaking in stainless-steel wineries. There’s very little chance of bacterial spoilage, and agitation caused by travelling in a car boot is nothing that can’t be cured by a couple of weeks “rest”. 

There is, however, an intriguing school of thought among – shall we say? – high-maintenance wine tasters that wines ‘close up’ in low-pressure, overcast conditions, and this has been offered as an excuse for postponing important tastings. 

If this is true, imagine the effects of high-pressure, bright, sunny conditions on normal people, especially if they’ve had a few. 

Everything tastes better when we are relaxed and happy, so enjoy your unpretentious holiday wine for the brief summer fling that it is. By the time you get it home it will be fit to clean paintbrushes; not so much Shirley Valentine as surely turpentine.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.