David Lecomte, the head winemaker for all City Winery locations – New York, Chicago and opening soon in Napa Valley—is a strong advocate of the advantages of tap wine. Under his direction, City Winery in New York City started with three tap wines in the spring 2009, then upgraded to five in the spring 2010 and ramped up to 11 tap wines in the summer of 2011. City Winery, the only winery in New York City’s geography is also probably the seller of the greatest volume of tap wine on the East Coast of the United States.
Lecomte explains his emphasis on tap wines and why you probably want to add tap wine to your life. Lecomte says, “I always been a big supporter of tap wines as a way to serve fresh and good wine. In Europe, bulk wine “vin en vrac” does not necessarily carry a connotation of poor quality. When you know the right spot and the right wine (either local wineries or a wine shop), it is often a good way to get pleasant everyday wines for a great price. Wine by the tap is similar, but the possibilities it affords a winemaker has potential to add even more advantages.
“First, consider that tap wines are ones that have been exposed to less stress. What do I mean by referring to them as lower stress wines? Pretty obviously, wines by the tap do not need to be bottled. One of the most difficult tasks for any winemaker is bottling. There are always last minute problems --not enough glass, not enough labels, incorrect labels, not enough staff, wine plugging during the final filtration, the threat of microbial infection during bottling, equipment breakdowns, etc.
“During the winemaking process, we work hard caring for the wines. We witness our wines fermenting and maturing in front of us. This evolution is usually slow and we can influence it if it goes awry. All our attention and care provided over 6 to 18 months can be wasted if we encounter any problems during bottling. If we eliminate the bottling step we make our lives easier and don’t have to worry about our months of work to make the wine going awry.
“Next there is the benefit of using minimal sulfur dioxide (SO2). When bottling a wine, most wineries will push up the SO2 content to prevent any chance of microbial infection during bottling and to preserve the wine after bottling. Many people can, for example, note the obvious sulfite odor found in some recently bottled sweet white wines such as a German Riesling. Those who are expert in making tap wines know that you never are compelled to add sulfite before kegging a tap wine. The wine is stored at 60 degrees Fahrenheit and covered with inert argon. One simply doesn’t need to do anything more to protect the wine.
“Filtration steps can be eliminated for certain tap wines that would otherwise need to go through a filtration step if they were bottled. For example, City Winery’s Sauvignon Blanc does not go through malo-latic fermentation. If we wanted to bottle it safely we would have to sterile filter the wine. Such a tight filtration would damage the wine by decreasing its richness and perhaps inducing some dryness. Filtration needed to insure stability in the long run is simply unnecessary if the wine is kegged as a tap wine.
“Consider too that tap wine is always a greener product. One doesn’t waste resources or energy for supplies-- cork, label, foil, bottle, or boxes. This also means less waste in the world, something we all should appreciate.
“From a business perspective, there is greater economy in tap wines because of reduced wine losses. There is no need to worry about an oxidized bottle opened last week or worry about unsatisfied a customer complaining that wine is corked. When you are serving tap wine, such considerations are not part of the business equation.
“For both the winemaker and wine enthusiast perspective there is an element of fun and experimentation that is more possible with tap wines. What I mean is that there are always some small batches of wine that are odd but somehow interesting. They are usually light or hard press wines kept separate from the classic free run wines. We are speaking about 15 to maybe 60-gallon lots. However there is no way to do a bottling with such small volumes because of bottling costs and because there wouldn’t be enough to market with so few cases. A place like City Winery can readily feature such small lot wines on tap as a special barrel or keg of the week.
“Overall, you can think of tap wine as relatively worry-free wine. There are so many ways a wine can go bad in a bottle. When we bottle our wine we take great care to prevent any potential chemical instabilities – e.g. protein and tartaric precipitation for whites, copper case and color instability for reds, cork taint. We also need to protect against microbial instabilities such as re-fermentation in bottle or the development of a type of yeast, Brettanomyces, in the bottle. Just as an example, City Winery’s Sauvignon Blanc has some fresh aromas of citrus, hawthorn, with a lively mouth feeling. However it may not be tartaric stable, meaning than a few harmless tartaric crystals might appear. Tartaric crystals do not change the wine’s taste but their appearance may make the wine unmarketable. Serve the same wine as a tap wine and you do not have to worry about it because the wine is stored at 60F in the cellar and is chilled down to service temperature en route to the tap. Even if a few crystals appear, they will be in the bottom of the kegs.
“People interested in furthering their wine education can learn much more quickly by visiting a winery with tap wines that is making education a key part of their offering. For example, one could sample the same wine aged in French vs. American oak barrels and immediately learn to distinguish what these different type of oaks do to the wines’ taste. Wine flights from tap wine are ideal matches for wine education, for such reasons.
“To conclude, wines by the tap have numerous advantages. At City Winery, it enables us to prepare our house wines with minimal winemaking intervention: no or minimal filtration, no fining for white wine, and no SO2 addition before kegging. This makes tap wines closer to their true nature. One might think of them as raw wines. And wine enthusiasts should especially know that when they are in a winery specializing in tap wines they can sample new tastes of fresh and alive wines that have not been altered to enable them to ship across a continent.”
You can sample tap wines at City Winery locations in New York City, Chicago, and soon in Napa Valley.
For information visit the City Winery website or call NYC City Winery at 212 608 0555.
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Photos by Peter Kachergis unless otherwise indicated