The glass of gamay I'm drinking is delicious. It was produced by Andrew Nielsen, an Australian winemaker who works in Burgundy and sells wine under the highly regarded Le Grappin label. It's full of lipsmacking purple fruit, perfect with the succulent lamb on my plate here at Clipstone, one of London's best new bistros. It's a very classy drink. And it only cost me five quid a glass because it was poured on tap, from a keg.
Nielsen is one of a growing number of winemakers servicing the restaurant trade in the UK and around the world with kegs, as more and more establishments install systems for pouring wine on tap. Nielsen also sells 1.5-litre plastic pouches (with a tap) of Beaujolais, Burgundy and Côtes du Rhône called Bagnums: upmarket modern iterations of cask wine, or the goon sack, aimed at picnickers and budget-conscious drinkers who don't want to sacrifice quality for cost.
Wine on tap is nothing new, of course. Neither is the concept of selling wine in a collapsible bladder: the bag-in-box is an Australian innovation that dates back to the 1960s. The difference is that the quality in the 21st century is much better than it was in the 20th.
Kegs of wine can be found at all of the venues in the Lucas Restaurants group in Melbourne and Sydney, from popular Asian-styled diners Hawker Hall and Chin Chin to the top-end Japanese, Kisumé. In the group's larger, more casual restaurants, keg wine – poured from up to six different taps in some venues – now accounts for as much as 30 per cent of all wine sales.
The benefits to the restaurant are obvious: the wine stays fresher, it costs less and is easier to dispense. The key to success with consumers, says chief wine buyer Philip Rich, is ensuring that what comes out of those taps is as delicious as it can be. "The trick is to work closely with producers who make really good wine," he says. "In Melbourne, a lot of our wine is made for us by Tom Carson at Yabby Lake, and in Sydney we've worked with Brokenwood in the Hunter. They're putting the same quality wine that they'd put in bottle into keg."
When the Lucas venues started pouring wine from keg a few years ago, says Rich, there was some resistance from staff and consumers who thought only beer or pre-mix should be served that way.
"It reminds me of working in restaurants in the early 2000s when the Clare Valley's top riesling producers started using screw caps," he says. "At first customers would send the bottles back because they thought only cheap, low-quality wines came in screw caps. But then they got used to the idea and now screw caps are a non-issue: everyone accepts them. It's the same with wine on tap: customers have realised they can get the same quality wine from keg as they do from bottle."
Sydney sommelier James Hird has installed wine on tap in some of the venues in the restaurant group he works for, including Icebergs Bar and The Dolphin Hotel. But he's more excited about the casks of wine he now also stocks behind the bars and in the fridges – especially the most recent arrival, a 10-litre bag-in-box of orange wine made by cult Victorian vigneron Owen Latta.
"I really like the idea that good-quality, well-farmed wine can also be accessible," says Hird. "Because of the cost savings that come with cask, we can sell it for $9 a glass, rather than the $14 we'd have to charge for the same wine out of bottle. Which means more people can afford to try it: even my mum drinks orange wine now."
Chloe Oestreich took a very different approach with her first range of three upmarket casks, a pinot grigio, a rosé and a shiraz supplied by Mitchelton winery in central Victoria, which she sells under the Pord label. Rather than encasing the three-litre bladders of wine in a throwaway cardboard box, she packaged them in sturdy aluminium barrels printed with unique designs commissioned from contemporary artists. With a price tag of $160 per cask, Oestreich is challenging the disposable connotations of the format.
"People nowadays are more and more conscious about the waste they produce," she says. "It encouraged me to design a vessel which, after consumption of the wine, could be reused in a number of ways. Pord is a conversation starter and educator. I love the idea of it being re-used as a vase or sitting in your pantry storing sugar or flour."
Re-usable and delicious.