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Tasting Climate Change: Adaptation in a Vessel
By Sandra Taylor
Dec 17, 2019
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A few weeks ago I attended the second edition of Tasting Climate Change, a one-day international conference in Montreal.  Convened every two years by Canadian sommelier and author Michelle Bouffard,  the conference brought together leading speakers who are very knowledgeable about today's climate realities as well as the effects on vineyards.

The speakers covered several important themes, mostly of interest to producers:  Planting different grape varieties in regions (Bordeaux, Champagne) to withstand weather changes; reducing the carbon footprint through fuel changes in ship transportation; eliminating copper use in organic viticulture to reduce soil toxicity; impact on cool climate growing regions, and adaptation in warm climate regions.

As the conference name implies, we also tasted numerous wines during lunch that are produced sustainably – natural and cool climate wines from Nova Scotia and other regions of Canada; biodynamic wines from France, Italy, Austria and South Africa, as well as certified sustainable wines from California.

The final panel of the day shifted to what this could mean for wine consumers and how they can adapt.  One way is for retailers to create and launch a recycling program for wine bottles.  Another is for consumers to seek out wine in kegs.  Increasingly, wine on tap is gaining traction as a delivery method for serving wine by the glass in restaurants and wine bars.  There are numerous environmental benefits.  Kegs offer a 96% reduction in carbon footprint compared to wine poured from bottles over 20 years.  Just one stainless steel keg sequesters the same amount of CO2 as 28 trees!  Each stainless steel keg put into service eliminates the carbon emissions equivalent to taking a car off the road for two years.

Plus, each keg put into service saves 2,340 pounds of trash from the landfill over its lifetime.  Most wine bottles are thrown away or recycled, and along with them items like labels, boxes, tape, the cork and capsule.  So, if a 20-liter keg replaces 26.67 bottles of wine, the demand for those materials is reduced, too.  No more trash or cardboard recycling at restaurant closing time!  Clearly wine on tap is part of the broader mandate of sustainability too which the industry must adapt.

But the advantages aren’t just environmental; there are also some real advantages for the wine consumer. With wine on tap, you never have to worry about an open bottle being open too long, decreasing in quality and losing flavor profiles.  Wine in keg stays fresh, from the first glass to last.  There is no oxidation, no corkage, no spoilage, thus no more wasted wine.  Consumers have more premium options and can be offered a sample of wine to taste before deciding which glass of wine to buy.  There are over 150 wineries & over 250 premium wine brands available on tap according to Heidi Clauss, Chief Commercial Officer of Free Flow Wines, a pioneer of premium wine on tap with locations in  Sonoma, California and Bayonne, New Jersey.

“We offer everything from familiar brands to higher-end wines, including Matthiasson, Tablas Creek and Au Bon Climat,” says Clauss.  “As the category grows and more flagship accounts are demanding better wines in keg, we are seeing the premiumization of the wines we are putting in keg.”  Clauss estimates some 4,700 locations in the U.S. now offer wines on tap. For a list of premium wines available in kegs, check out trywineontap.com

At their best, wines on tap are fresh and bright, and can be enjoyed in the same condition as when they were kegged.  Of course, some wines are suited to the format better than others, namely, wines intended for early consumption within one or two years.
Wine on tap is gaining in availability in restaurants across the US (and in the UK). 

Instead of receiving dozens of bottles, ever more restaurants are choosing to receive kegs of wine. Wineries fill a keg, approximately 26.6 bottles of wine, or 120 glasses, with the same quality wine they use for their bottled wine, and then transport it to the restaurant.  Upon receiving the keg, the restaurant will store it in a cool environment, similar to how they store bottled wine.  The keg is then ‘tapped’ in almost the same way a keg of beer is tapped and, when empty, is returned to be cleaned and refilled by the winery.  “The steel keg can be reused dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of times,” according to Clauss.

Wine that tastes good comes down to two things – good quality wine and keeping the wine fresh.  Some people assume that wine on tap means a lesser-quality or lower-cost wine.  This is not the case at all, with wineries making more of their premium wine available on tap.  For wine to stay fresh it must be treated correctly, avoiding over-oxidization and over-heating.  Kegged wine actually makes this a lot easier, as the wine never touches air or gas until it is about to be served to a guest, and a keg is less susceptible to variations in temperature.

Similar to canned wine, wine on tap appeals to the sensibilities of millennials:  It is both innovative and environmentally friendly, as it eradicates the need for bottles and boxes.  It saves on packaging and therefore is cheaper and more environmentally friendly, and may very well be the wave of the future for these reasons.