I went to an intriguing wine tasting last week. It was a side by side blind comparison of identical wines. Only the packaging was different. One glass contained wine poured from a standard 750 ml. bottle and the other from a 9 litre poly bag and keg system.
OK, so it was a bit of a geek out. But it was also a fascinating exercise. And not easy to tell which wine was which. In fact, most of the winery principals on hand had a tough time picking out their own bottled wine. I may have chosen about four of the eight wines correctly.
Sometimes, the keg wine was slightly less aromatic in the glass. And perhaps displayed a little less intensity of fruit and length. But the difference was barely discernible. And all the wines showed pretty well.
A Keg Revolution
When it comes to wines by the glass, Vancouver has been a trailblazer. Although things don’t always move quickly in the wine world, the rise of keg and tap has been rapid. In not much more than a decade, wine by the glass has become the rule rather than the exception.
It wasn’t long ago that wines by the glass were a rarity. Plus, even if you were able to order something, the chances are it wouldn’t add up to much. The glass offering was often from the proverbial bottom of the barrel—and priced accordingly. And that bottle might have been open for days.
Today, more than ever, especially in Casual Fine Dining, if you don’t have a good line up of wine by the glass, you may as well shut the doors. Not only that, but if you want to have fun with food and wine pairing, wines by the glass are a must,
Earls on Tap
Earls Restaurants, who staged the tasting, has studied which wine on tap system to go with for some time. They’ve settled on the Torr System, a keg process which contrasts the popular Fresh Tap system. The latter employs reusable tanks which must be shipped back to the winery. Plus, Fresh Tap kegs the wine locally, meaning it’s handled twice.
The Torr System is a “one way” process. Wineries fill specialized plastic bags, usually at at the same time they’re bottling. The nine litre bags, equivalent to a case of a dozen 750 ml. bottles, are shipped in pairs, in a corrugated cardboard container. A sizeable investment is the up-front cost for the filling equipment at the winery, about $35,000.)
When the bags reach Earls they’re ready to place inside a cylinder, which looks like a small beer keg. Once installed in its tap dispenser the keg locks onto a valve, which pressurizes it. That’s important—because at no time is any inert gas or other medium introduced to the wine. Existing fridges are easily adapted to accept the keg.
With the bag under pressure, when the tap opens, the wine flows easily. The pressure ensures there’s little, if any, liquid left in the bag when it’s empty. And the cardboard box the wine came in also goes in the recycling.
Earls has begun to install the system in its restaurants across Canada. (Except in Ontario, where it gets complicated…) It’s also in use in the U.S. where the casual Fine Dining group is rapidly expanding.
Kegs Cut Down on Bottles
In Earls restaurants where the system has been in place for a while, sales of bottled wine have declined to around 20 percent of the total. That means four out of five customers are more than content to order wine by the glass. And probably don’t give it a second thought. (That experience is similar to what happened at Tap & Barrel, which has all but eliminated bottles.)
Over the years, Earls and its winery partners have developed Rascal of the Vineyard, What Cha Ma Call It, and other proprietary brands. These and most if not all their keg wines are also available in bottle through retailers.
I didn’t score these wines as I was too focused on trying decide which was which …
But you can correctly assume: what’s good enough for Earls to sell by the glass (er, by hundreds of kegs) is likely a pretty good wine…
Plus, just a hunch, but my guess is it won’t be long before you’ll be able to buy a keg of your favourite wine for your own fridge at home.
Seven Terraces Sauvignon Blanc 2015
A lovely expression of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc with some gooseberry aromas followed by luscious tropical and citrus notes and a crisp, clean close. BCLS $17.49.
Quails Gate Gewurztraminer 2015
Some of these vines date back to 1971. Classic varietal on the nose with tropical and floral notes before a textured, off dry palate. Mango and lychee plus a hint of ginger spice that comes through in the finish. A slam dunk with Earls Hunan Kung Pao. A good value wine, at BCLS $15.99
Crios de Susana Balbo Malbec 2014
A well balanced fruit driven blend of Malbec, Cab Sauv, Petit Verdot and Tannat from one of Argentina’s pioneering winemakers. Lifted red and black fruit on the nose with cherry and some savoury hints on the palate. BCLS $17.99 A great match with Earls Chimichurri skirt steak.
El Petit Bonhomme Garnacha Monastrell Syrah 2014
Montreal born Nathalie Bonhomme makes this blend of old vines Monastrell with Grenache and Syrah, at Juan Gil winery in Spain’s Jumilla region. Let it open in the glass. A medium bodied red wrapped in soft fruit and easy tannins that goes well with a fall stew. BCLS $15.99.
After the work was done, we got to sample some seriously good Earls dishes, plus wines to match.