On a visit to New York last year, I happened upon an adorable little bar called Lois, on Loisaida Avenue in Alphabet City. Run by a couple of Manhattan hipsters, they served wine exclusively on tap, as well as a handful of snacks made to order in their tiny kitchen.
Before then, my main experience of wine on tap had been a few unfortunate times when I'd met mates in the kinds of slick Mega-pubs that were among the first venues to start serving tap wine in Australia, where the product tasted like goon out of a keg. (Which is essentially what it was.)
Lois was run on a very different model, forging direct relationships with winemakers from around the world who were able to utilise the keg technology and thus remove the high cost of bottling from the production process.
The cool kids behind the bar told me that their biggest issue at that point was the lack of smaller, quality producers who were set up to package their wine in keg form, which meant they were drawing from a limited, though admittedly fast-growing, pool.
Scoping out the talent
On my return to Melbourne, I began to pay attention to the venues offering wine on tap, and what kinds they were serving.
There seems to be two main types of venue that have ventured into the developing, but still somewhat murky, territory of tap wine.
The first are those that have signed up to a tap wine supplier, who not only installs the tap system but also supplies their own range of wines. It is probably wise to be suspicious of these venues, although admittedly I don't have much experience in this area. The risk here is the main risk associated with tap wine in general: the fact that wine producers are able to offload inferior vintages in bulk, on the cheap, to tap wine suppliers who have most likely locked their client venues into contracts.
The second type are the higher-end, wine-focused and adventurous venues that source wine direct from the producers, often from boutique local winemakers for whom the bulk sale is very helpful, and may even allow them to custom-produce for such a purpose.
Getting to know the locals
One of the latter venues, serving delicious and interesting wine on tap, is Neighbourhood Wine in North Fitzroy, Melbourne. I dropped by to chat to owner Simon Denman and to sample their current offerings: a wild and woolly natural Riesling from the terrific Jamsheed wines, and a surprisingly savoury organic Syrah from Barossa label Tommy Ruff.
I asked Denman how he initially got into wine on tap: "It was about four years ago now".
"I was introduced to the key keg technology when one of our importers started trialling kegs of Prosecco from Italy. We found there to be some technical issues with sparkling wine in keg format and discontinued it in the end. However, we saw that the key kegs did offer us a really great way to purchase large quantities of one off still wines from local producers and save on the cost of bottling and logistics."
These savings, Simon explained, have allowed him to offer what would usually be expensive, top-quality small-batch wines at house wine prices. Great news for his customers!
The benefits of conversion
According to Denman, "there are mostly only advantages" to tap wine.
The pressurised bladder surrounded by inert gas in which it is packaged prevents the wine from oxidising and makes it highly stable.
Wines packaged in this way also need very little if any Sulphur dioxide added. "We can offer great So2 free wines by the glass without any spoilage," Denman explained.
The real test
How have the customers responded, though?
"Initially there was some misunderstanding," confesses Denman.
"Caused by the low quality wines that some pubs have poured from standard beer kegs over the years. However, pretty quickly the tide turned as people realised how affordable quality wine could be in this format. We now have customers who come specifically to drink the tap wines on offer."
Is this the way of the future then? Will wine aficionados soon abandon their snobbery in the same way they eventually did with screw caps back in the 2000s? According to Denman, "absolutely".
"As more producers experiment with this, it will only become better and more widespread."
If you're in the market for a new way of wine tasting, check out Neighbourhood Wine or Harry & Frankie in Melbourne, or P&V Merchants in Sydney.
Keen to try some quality wine on tap? Share your thoughts on the trend in the comments section below.