Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro is known for many things—being the highest mountain in Africa, the subject of one of Hemingway’s best stories—but not so much for wine tastings. But don’t tell that to James Cluer, a Napa-based master of wine. This past December, Cluer trekked to the top of Kilimanjaro specifically to test what happens to wine at super-high altitudes.
After an all-night climb lit by headlamps, Cluer, his guide and his porter successfully summited the mountain with their load (12 full bottles, which is a heck of a lot of weight to haul up a mountain) and had time to taste nine wines before heading back down. His short film of the experience can be seen here. As for how the wines did, he says, “They didn’t change out of all recognition, but there were distinct differences. The reds definitely tasted more tannic, though that’s partly because of temperature; the sweet wines tasted a little drier; and the sparkling wine really changed, just exploding out of the bottle—the altitude really changes the effervescence.”
Cluer consults on in-flight wine selections for Qatar Airways (which sponsored the trip), so I asked him if he had tips for non-mountain-climbing wine drinkers when it comes to choosing wine on board planes. “Definitely,” he said. “For reds, the ones that are typically more enjoyable are full-bodied, fruity, soft-tannin reds. Really tannic reds don’t show well in the sky, and extremely complex, delicate reds—like an aged Pinot Noir or Rioja—lose a lot of their nuances. For whites, I generally try to avoid those with low aromatic intensity and lighter, more delicate flavors. So I choose things like Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer and Riesling. A wine like Chablis, you really won’t get much of its aroma.”
(He also says that his preferred way of packing wines for checked luggage is to put the bottles into bubble-wrap sleeves, like a Wine Skin, then wrapping the bottles up in clothes for extra protection.)
Prior to Kilimanjaro, Cluer went on an earlier expedition to the Mount Everest base camp, also to taste wine at altitude; he’s tasted wine in Thailand on a floating vineyard, too. “It’s actually in a canal, outside Bangkok,” he says. “They have mounds of earth and straw with vines growing on them, out in the middle of the water.” What’s next? Cluer isn’t sure—Argentina’s Aconcagua, at 22,841 feet, is one possibility. But personally, I’d say enough of this high-altitude business. Why not head down instead? The Mariana Trench! Imagine: What would wine be like almost seven miles below the surface of the ocean?
Unfortunately, the answer to that question may remain a mystery. But I do know one thing: It would be very hard to pour.