Cathay Pacific won several awards in the Cellars in the Sky. Tom Otley visits Bordeaux with the airline’s wine experts.

It’s an unseasonably sunny day in mid-June and we’re standing in the vineyard of Chateau Branaire in Bordeaux. The first flowers are on the vines ?- small green buds that will soon begin to fill into the grapes of the 2004 vintage. There’s no way to know which varieties they are but, being in the wine appellation of St Julien, it’s a safe bet they are a mixture of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Patrick Maroteaux, owner of the Chateau, is explaining to us his methods.

“We have reduced yields to 45-48 litres per hectare – the best level for the expression of the terroir [the characteristics of the vineyard, which are imparted to the wine].”

This emphasis on terroir is important, though it’s difficult to imagine these flowers blossoming into something that will go on to inspire tasting notes such as “an alluring perfume of violets and a taste that is gentle yet firm.” Yet Branaire has been wowing wine lovers for centuries, and has just been chosen as a new wine for Cathay Pacific’s first class.

It’s all the more impressive when you consider that the wines are virtually undrinkable for the first four years, only showing their best qualities after five or six years.

It’s a sobering thought, but the wines we choose at 37,000 feet ? whether in first, business or economy – have passed through a rigorous selection procedure. Cathay stocks over 70 different wines from France, Italy, South Africa, Australia, the US and New Zealand and, in 2003, served one million bottles of wine and champagne on board.

For each wine list the airline employs several staff, including external wine consultants who lend their expertise and their taste buds to the selection process. In this case it is wine experts Chi-Sun Lau and Roy Moorfield, who have worked in the trade for many years. When a new wine area is under consideration, they make several visits to the region’s vineyards to sample the produce, accompanied by the airline’s food and beverage buyers. Eventually, a new chateau may be signed up to supply wine; during my trip it was Chateau Branaire, which will provide Grand Cru Classe Saint-Julien 4th Growth for the first class cabin.

The first vintage to be served in the air will be 1996 and we sample this at lunch. It’s a delicious wine, though as I search for the right description I find myself mainly borrowing other people’s expressions: “fruity, ruby red in colour and very tasty” (the last part being my own contribution).

Next day it’s off to Chateau Lynch Bages in Pauillac, to visit a vineyard which is already supplying one of Cathay Pacific’s red wines in first class. The tasting notes that result from this are: “medium-to-full-bodied with a deep ruby red, strong yet fairly concentrated black cherry and blackcurrant flavours.”

Both of these wines are best served with red meats. On board, it’s the 1997 vintage which is currently being served.

So how do you go about choosing the right wine? “We needed a contrasting wine to the Lynch Bages,” Roy Moorfield says. “But we also had to fly the wine to see if it could withstand the take-off and vibration.” Moorfield explains that the atmosphere on board is perhaps 40% drier than on the ground, which accentuates any bitterness or acidity. “Once we’ve found the right taste up there, we also have to pay attention to the technical ability of the wine maker. If there was a change in the fruit, for instance, it would be a problem because we are buying a large quantity.”

Moorfield has been working with Cathay Pacific for 16 years and is well-known in the wine industry in Hong Kong. It was he who advised the airline to start buying en primeur (at an early stage ? often even before the wine has been barrelled) in order to procure good wines at affordable prices.

As drinking trends have evolved, most airlines have observed a gradual change in passengers’ drinking habits ? for example, with fewer spirits being drunk on board. Nevertheless, the wines served in the air are still very important. More than 1,500 cases of red wine were served in first class by Cathay last year. With such quantities required, it’s all the more crucial to get it right.