Tim James: The possibilities of keg wine

By , 12 February 2024



My most enjoyable recent wine experience was not grand – and it was the sort of occasion when the idea of sternly scoring or rating a wine “in the glass” by some abstract notion of quality seems, well, more absurd than usual. We’re all, I trust, fortunate enough to know many such trumping occasions. This one involved a pretty simple red wine, served cold in a jug and drunk from a tumbler.

The place was Ouzeri, the fairly new Cypriot-Greek restaurant in Cape Town that rapidly became a darling of the official foodie set, the people that give out controversial awards, mostly to trendy places (did you see on Daily Maverick the devastating critique of the Eat Out Awards by Kobus van der Merwe of Wolfgat? and the placatory response?). This was my second lunch at Ouzeri and again I enjoyed it very much, though I’m not quite as adulatory as many, including my frequent lunch partner, John – but then, like him admittedly, I’m a regular worshipper at Table Seven (regular, that is, when they’re open and not making us wait hungrily while they’re closed to do their catering, gigs and whatever), so my comparisons are high.

Anyway, John was late, so I examined the wine list and menu with more attention than usual. It’s a list that’s very well, intelligently selected (OMG, I nearly said “curated” – it’s terrible how one’s standards of linguistic decency slip), mostly in the modern hipsterish mode: generally excellent, lightish, naturalish wines, with subheadings like “Skin-contact wines”.

Wine from keg at Ouzeri.

I noticed a somewhat tucked-away mention of a nameless “light pinotage from Voor-Paardeberg” available in carafes in half- or full-bottle volumes. As this is a particularly favourite category of mine at present (as I rather more than mentioned last week), I asked who the producer was. Turned out to be Tremayne Smith, whose Blacksmith wines I have admired greatly – though I see I last wrote about them nearly five years ago; clearly I need to catch up. So I confidently ordered 750ml of it, some of the confidence being that my not-yet-arrived lunch partner also enjoys wines like I was sure this would prove to be.

I didn’t get much of a head start in drinking it, in fact as he turned up shortly after the wine did. The latter (chronologically the former, if not grammatically so) arrived in a rather industrial-looking, minimalist metal jug. And, as I mentioned early, very nicely cold: a perfect temperature for the delicious, unpretentious, dry and light wine, one that served to further entrench my opinion that properly handled pinotage leaves cinsaut way behind in the light-red stakes.

Drinking from a tumbler seemed not inappropriate, and certainly very acceptable. I do have my doubts about the minimalist steel jug – a glass carafe or a ceramic jug would have suited Ouzeri’s décor and atmosphere rather better, I think – but not about the wine. Nor, in fact about the potential virtues of wines from keg in restaurants and bars. This was the first time, in fact, that I had properly thought about the category, though no doubt in youthful forays in Europe, I’d had vin de pays or vino da tavola  from tap (gosh, I can still almost hear myself, 40 years later, asking for deux Côtes-du-Rhône s’il vous plait…).

Rather strangely, despite the obvious advantages for serving wine by glass and  carafe, for reasons that seem to involve unwillingness on the side of bars and restaurants and caution on the side of distributors and producers, there are not many places in South Africa that have wine on tap. The category of “keg wines” has, however, taken off particularly in the UK and the USA, says Ingrid Motteux of Fine Wine on Tap. They deal mostly in export – including to the Antarctic, wonderfully enough, although conditions there are apparently very unsuited to fine wine drinking (like airliners, only much more so) – with some of the wines kegged under their own brand, Motteux Family .

Fine Wine on Tap makes use of recyclable but once-off kegs made from PET, with double walls and an inner collapsing liner. Ingrid says that this system, severely restricting oxygen ingress, allows a longer life for the vinous contents than metal kegs (though these seem to work satisfactorily for at least a good while and are standard for beer). An add-on chiller allows the kegs to be kept in room temperature but be delivered cool or cold from the tap.

If there are few significant wines available here from keg, it seems there are quite a few exports, especially to the UK, including such prestigious names as AA Badenhorst, Savage and Craven. It’s such an obviously good idea – with all sorts of advantages, from physical footprint to carbon footprint, to ease of service, and possibly financial saving (though the imported kegs are not cheap here) – that surely we can expect to find more and more of them around. And if they mean more cold light pinotage being available in summer, so much the better.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


3 comment(s)

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    Ingrid Motteux | 13 February 2024

    Ah, Barclay, I now see you’re the Business Development VP for Free Flow Wines. I’ve followed you guys for a while. Promise we’re not giving the wine-on-tap category a bad name by using Key Kegs! #NoCrapOnTap

    Ingrid Motteux | 13 February 2024

    Barclay, I agree, some PET kegs are terrible for wine and in my experience of using both, I’d only use the Dutch Key Keg for wine (double-wall PET, quality alufoil bag). I don’t work for Key Keg by the way but see https://www.keykeg.com/recycling/

    The steel is all the great things you describe but I’d want wine to be safely in a bag where there is no chance of Co2 dissolving into the headspace of the keg (albeit slowly, even with Guiness mix) and altering the profile of the wine.

    Longevity for us using Key Keg has not been an issue in our experience. An example: 2015 Chenin Blanc kegged in 2016 was in pristine condition 5 years later. There are plently of other examples.

    Free Flow do an amazing job in the US with steel, their volumes and two-way logistics seem to make it viable.

    We’re no strangers to water crises in SA, steel kegs require thorough cleaning with water and cleaning solution. The carbon footprint and local challenges of return logistics of steel kegs is another consideration.

    No idea about the US, but in Europe One Circle collect and recycle and re-use empty kegs in making new ones and are ISO 18604 complaint. In our environment kegs are mostly upcycled for use as water containers, plant pots and used as stools in home and schools.

    Barclay Webster | 13 February 2024

    The comments about steel kegs not preserving the wine as well as PET kegs are absolutely false. Steel kegs are made of the same grade steel quality orientated wineries around the world use in their cellars for storage/fermentation tanks. They’re 100% inert, free of UV light, and ensure the wine tastes exactly the as the winemaker intended.

    PET kegs are terrible for wine quality, operational consistency at the account level, and most importantly the environment. At least in the US, we have not been able to locate a single recycling facility who can actually process them. They all go to the landfill or are incinerated. Not to mention even most PET keg companies are now admitting they only last 6 months from filling.

    Stick to steel or don’t do it all please. It gives the category a bad name and contributes the equivalent of 150 standard 16oz water bottles of plastic to the global crisis.

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