On the ground in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, a glass of good wine is hard to come by. Alcohol is sold retail only by two branches of the official Qatar Distribution Company, and you need a permit (and a non-Qatari passport) to buy it. If you want wine or any other alcohol with your restaurant meal, you'll have to eat in one of the large international hotels, the only other places licensed to purvey it.
In the air, on Qatar Airways, on the other hand, it's another story entirely. In fact, paradoxically, the airline has one of the most extensive and well-curated wine programs of any carrier in the world. On a recent business class flight from the spectacular new Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar's capital, to New York City, the Taittinger Prestige Rosé was flowing like water. So was the Billecart-Salmon Brut.
White-wine drinkers had the choice of a Bouchard Père et Fils Beaune du Château 2010, a Petit Clos Sauvignon Blanc 2011 from New Zealand's Marlborough district, and a McWilliams Elizabeth Semillon 2006 — an extraordinary, beautifully developed bottle-aged example from Australia's Hunter Valley. Prefer red? Have some Château Phélan-Ségur 2006, or St Hallett Faith Barossa Valley Shiraz 2011, or Errázuriz Don Maximiano Founders Reserve 2009 cabernet blend, one of Chile's most serious Bordeaux-style wines. For dessert, who not a Kopke Colheita 1974 port or a Château Dereszla 5 Puttonyos Tokaji Aszú 2008?
Things aren't quite as upscale back in the economy section, but they're not drinking cheap California pinot grigio or merlot either. There, the Champagne might be something like the excellent Jacquart Brut Mosaïque, while still wine choices are along the lines of Réserve de Tholomies Chardonnay from France's Languedoc, Paul Jaboulet Sécret to Famille Syrah from the Rhône, or Lurton Tierra de Luna Malbec from Argentina.
The airline's wine program is the work of James Cluer, Master of Wine. Born in England and brought up there and in Hong Kong, Cluer has been in the wine trade since his first job out of school, at the age of 18, working for a Hong Kong wine importer. He went on to work for wineries in France, Australia, and California. "I just had good fortune," he told me when I spoke with him recently. "I discovered wine and then got the bug."
Today, Cluer’s family-owned company, based in Vancouver and the Napa Valley, runs 16 Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) schools across North America, conducts wine tours in many of the world's best wine regions, produces wine education videos, does various kinds of wine consulting, publishes the Fine Vintage Wine Blog (http://www.finevintageltd.com/blog), and chooses the wines for a single airline, which happens to be one that you might least expect to evince an interest in fine wine.
"I would agree that an airline in the Middle East isn't first to spring to mind for a wine program," Cluer admits, "but Qatar Airways has a very international perspective whilst also being sensitive to the local situation. They have a huge number of passengers who are transiting through Doha [the Qatari capital]."
Qatar is Cluer’s only airline client. "It's been a fabulous experience working with them," he says. "My brief is to assemble a really exciting, fantastic selection of wines, including classics and then some of what we term ‘discovery wines.’ Obviously we have a budget and watch that very carefully, but the focus is 100 percent on quality." That Hunter Valley Semillon, he says, is a good example of a discovery wine. "It's slightly unusual, but accessible. We don't want something that's so much of a discovery that it doesn't have passenger appeal."
The wines Cluer buys for the airline are selected through a blind tasting process. "Basically, I set the categories and the regions we want to represent," he explains. "We want to end up with two Champagnes, four whites, four reds, a sweet wine, and a port. We start from a database of who are generally considered best producers in those regions. I use my own historical experience, and we look at the books and classic guides. Then we send a tender to the wineries asking for samples to be sent to the airline's catering office in Frankfurt, because it's easier to do this in Europe than the Middle East."
Cluer tastes three to five times a year, along with the Qatar Airways director of inflight catering, Christian Bris, and the head of the wine and spirits distribution outlet in Doha, Colin Binmore. Cluer continues, "We get a phenomenal response rate from the wineries, typically five or six hundred different wines. A lot of wineries like the idea of showcasing their wines on a five-star airline. We unpack the boxes — let's say it's white Burgundies or New Zealand sauvignon blancs. There's an average of maybe 50 submissions within a category, and I divide these into flights of four or five wines each. An assistant switches them up and pours them, and we look for the best wines in each flight. Ultimately, I decide what gets chosen."
Once Cluer and his fellow tasters have made their final selections, they taste the same wines again in the air, because what tastes and smells good at sea level won't necessarily stand up in flight. "The main difficulty," Cluer said, "is that the intensity of aroma is reduced at high altitude, or rather your perception of it is. This is largely related to the dryness in the cabin. You become less sensitive to certain aromas as your nasal passages dry up. Also, red wines tend to taste a little bit more tannic. Delicate wines, like very light, elegant pinot noirs or chardonnays, have a complexity that is hard to perceive up in the sky. We would never list a Barolo or a Barbaresco — they'd be far too astringent."
About 90 percent of the selection is changed every three months, and there are different wines on inbound and outbound flights. "It would be way easier to just keep the lists the same once we've found the right wines," Cluer says, "but we don't want people to get bored with what they're drinking."
On one occasion, out of curiosity, Cluer took some wine up to a base camp on Mount Everest and did a tasting there. "There was definitely a difference," he says. "The Champagne bubbled like crazy!"