The airline’s Master of Wine James Cluer makes sure your vino tastes great at cruising altitude.

Qatar Airlines: Sommelier
Credit: Melanie Lieberman

What does it take to design a wine menu for one of the world's top airlines? According to Qatar Airways's Master of Wine James Cluer, it means scaling some of the highest mountains on earth and, predictably, drinking a lot of wine.

Cluer has been in the professional wine industry for more than 22 years, and during that time he has gone to some extraordinary heights to build Qatar's inflight wine service.

"We set categories—Australian Shiraz, for example—and pull from our database of the best [varietals] in the respective category. Wineries will send samples and we'll walk into a room (myself and two others on the panel) stocked with 750 to 1,000 different wines. So be careful what you wish for! At 7:30 in the morning, it's a little tough to blind taste all those wines."

Oh yes, James. Terribly difficult.

Qatar rotates its wine selections every three months, meaning frequent fliers have plenty of opportunities to discover new wines. Of course, there are a few bottles that can be found reliably on the menu during every inbound and outbound flight.

Cluer names them affectionately: "A Krug champagne in first, and a 41-year port [the 1974 Kopke Colheita from Portugal] that you're not allowed to get off the plane until you try."

For wine professionals and enthusiasts, the altitude and recycled air in the cabin can make it difficult to appreciate the nuances and depth of flavor in a glass of wine.

"It's you that changes, not the wine," Cluer explains. "Just to clear up that misconception. [When] you're in a dry air cabin environment, you suffer from palette fatigue faster than you would on the ground, and your nasal cavities dry out."

"Wines have a lot of aromatic intensity, [but] you struggle in the air to get the full experience. So we pick wines with richness and ripeness, and not too tannic."

Still, only the truly extraordinary wine connoisseur would scale a mountain to test the theory in action.

With designated wine Sherpas, Cluer has scaled Mt. Kilimanjaro and traveled to Mt. Everest's base camp to sip his Qatar picks at altitudes just shy of what you might experience on a long-haul flight from New York City to Doha.

"[There was quite a fiesta] out there with the sweet Château Dereszia Hungarian Tokaji 2006. After carrying seven bottles [our Sherpa] Hubert Henry definitely didn't hold back," Cluer says, recounting his expedition.

“Champagne bubbles much more on mountains [than at] sea level,” Cluer noted.

While the peaks Cluer has scaled with bottles in tow are hardly traditional wine destinations, Cluer is still eager to look beyond France for his next discovery.

"The misconceived notion that France is the only place with terroir is passé," Cluer observes. "You're starting to see wines from all kinds of places that are unusual, like Mexico or Texas. There are even vineyards in Thailand and sparkling wine coming from India."

What's next for this wine-drinking, mountain climbing, globe-trotting guy?

While he's eyeing the tallest peak in South America, Aconcagua (with a summit that nearly pierces 23,000-feet) Cluer has plenty of work to do with Qatar in the meantime--and a flight back to Doha to catch.