A glass of prosecco, signora? Will that be bottle or tap? And may we interest you in a lovely carafe of draft pinot gris with dinner?
Roll out the barrel: Kegs aren't just for beer any more. Wine on tap is a cost-saving, eco-friendly, by-the-glass pour system currently flowing into pubs and fine restaurants across North America. Wine in barrels is obviously a fairly ancient concept, but the technology of which we speak is decidedly modern.
"This is the way prosecco is served all over Italy," says Michael Mameli, the wine director at Vancouver's Lupo Restaurant and Vinoteca, pulling a flute of fresh Italian frizzante from a bar tap connected to a cardboard-and-plastic KeyKeg underneath the counter. He imports the sparkling wine (along with a still pinot grigio-bianco house blend) from Montelvini Venegazzu, home to the largest keg-filling plant in Italy.
"I was in Capri and Positano a few years ago and they were selling it from refrigerated popcorn carts on all the beaches," he recalls. "It was so cool. I thought, 'Why can't we do this in Canada?' "
Now we can. Or at least we can in British Columbia, where 10 restaurants, including Fiamo in Victoria and Tavola in Vancouver, are pouring prosecco on tap. Twenty others are serving Montelvini's still wines.
In the U.S., the trend has taken a more boutique direction. Rather than tapping into cheap and cheerful beach wines from large commercial producers, influential gastropubs such as DBGB Kitchen and Bar in New York and Father's Office in Los Angeles serve a rotating selection of local, small-batch, cult-worthy wines that are exclusive to them or otherwise hard to find.
At the Naramata Heritage Inn, just outside Penticton, B.C., the first such Canadian draft wine was hooked up last month. It's a full-bodied pinot gris from the nearby Nichol Vineyard, a small-lot producer of collectible estate-grown wines.
"I was a bit leery at the beginning," restaurant manager Quentin Kayne says of the 19.5-litre stainless-steel kegs, which use pressurized nitrogen to push the wine through a draft-beer line system.
"But I was remarkably surprised. There's no residual nitrogen notes or scent to it. There's no need for sulphur dosing. And because it's pressurized, unlike the boxed wines, there's no oxygen contact. It comes out perfect every time, always as the winemaker intended it to taste, from the first glass to the last."
After a taste-off last weekend, Mr. Kayne is now convinced that the kegs offer more than just a preservation system to prevent wine from going flat and funky. He argues that this particular pinot gris actually tastes better on tap than it does in a bottle. "We cracked a bottle last night and compared the two," he said. "The nose on the draft wine was much more intense," he says, attributing it to a lack of bottle shock (the temporary disjointedness that wines go through when bottled and transported).
Wine on tap is a far more affordable proposition than some of the bottle-preservation systems on the market. Enomatic machines, for instance, range from $5,000 to $50,000. Any establishment with a draft-beer line system, on the other hand, can tap into keg wine.
"This system isn't as showy," he said, noting that the restaurant has had to insulate the wine keg to keep it at the correct temperature and work hard to keep the system clean so that there is no cross-contamination with the beer lines.
The prosecco-filled KeyKeg requires quite a bit of tweaking for optimal carbonization and taste. It's a different type of bag-in-ball system that uses an inert plastic bag inside a hard-shelled ball, which is hooked up to an argon-gas or carbon-dioxide tank. The gas does not add bubble; it simply exerts pressure on the outside of the ball, compressing the bladder and pushing the wine - fresh, crisp and sparkling - out the spout. (KeyKegs have a shelf life of eight months. Once tapped, table wine stays fresh for two to three months and sparkling wine for two to three weeks.)
As a bonus, wine on tap is as good for the planet as it is for the palate. Keg packaging significantly reduces waste (and cost) by eliminating the need for bottles, labels, corks and cases. KeyKegs, although not reusable, are 100-per-cent recyclable. The ball, bag, box and valve all break down to a small handful that can be tossed right into a blue bin.
Ideally, all those accumulated savings will trickle down to consumers. Nichol Vineyard saves 17 per cent on packaging alone. At the Naramata Heritage Inn, a glass on tap sells for $9; out of the bottle, it costs $11.
"We were looking for a way to make our wines more accessible and a little less expensive, without sacrificing quality and our margins," explains Matthew Sherlock, Nichol's director of sales and marketing.
"We're a small winery - we only produce 2,400 cases a year in total - we can't discount stuff for restaurants and play the same incentive games as the big boys."
Not all Canadian wineries will be able to reap the benefits of kegging their wine. In British Columbia and Ontario, only wines in glass bottles can bear the VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) designation.
"That will certainly be an impediment," Mr. Sherlock acknowledges, noting that the regulations don't affect Nichol because it's not VQA, even though it adheres to all its quality rules.
Mr. Sherlock says winery owner Ross Hackworth now wishes he had reserved more wine. They kept back 200 litres of the pinot gris, gewurztraminer and award-winning 2009 Nine Mile Red for kegs. The latter two wines are being hooked up at the new Edible British Columbia restaurant on Vancouver's Granville Island next week.
"Kegs works best for fresh, fruit-forward wines that are meant to be drunk young," Mr. Sherlock says. "Our pinot gris is still made from serious juice. Our vines are 24 years old. But it has a clean, bright flavour profile that is perfect for this system."
Mr. Kayne agrees, kind of. "There's a lot of romance behind the bottle. I wouldn't want to see a Lafite Rothschild, which requires bottle aging, in a keg. But after seeing how beautiful the wine comes out, I'd be interested in tasting some super-premium wines on tap. I'd be very curious. It's such a cool technology."