Keep it Fresh: Wine Preservers Put To The Test

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Drinks: Wines

With wines by-the-glass the essential element for all decent restaurantsand bars, what’s the best way of keeping the ravages of time at bay? Susanna Forbes and a team of tasters put wine preservers to the test


No longer is it sufficient to simply have a shedload of ancient Bordeaux to qualify as having a good wine list. Today’s diner wants variety and a good by-the-glass selection is a must.

‘People are more used to having good wine,’ says Daniel Primack, general manager of About Wine, wine accessories retailer extraordinaire and UK agents for Eurocave, due to launch its own preservation system in the autumn. ‘They are no longer happy to compromise.’ And it’s not just eating establishments. Go-ahead bars and pubs too are catching on. Witness the bars at London’s Pearl and The East Room with their snazzy wine dispensing cabinets.

This trend is driven by three main factors: the health lobby, a desire for outlets to distinguish themselves, and the growing confidence of the wine-buying public. The benefits can also be listed in threes: economic returns, customer experience and an opportunity to broaden your customers’ horizons.

Take Barcelona Tapas, for example. Before the arrival of a Verre de Vin machine in the late 1990s, this small group of authentic London tapas bars had less than a dozen wines by the glass, plus a few sparklers. After the Verre de Vin arrived, 100 glasses emerged onto the catwalk.

A TOUCH OF GLAMOUR

For Dawn Davies at Selfridges, takings have roughly doubled since the Wonder Bar re-emerged a year ago with an array of gleaming Enomatic cabinets with self serve capabilities. While for Andrew Connor, the two Enomatics adorning the entrance to The Lanesborough’s recently renovated restaurant, Apsleys, haven’t triggered more sales by volume, ‘but it has pushed the average spend up’. Popular choices include Antinori’s Cervaro della Sala at £22.50 a glass and Sassicaia at £60, up to Pétrus at £400 a glass.

From an operators’ perspective Andrew Coles, general manager at The East Room, says its sextet of Enomatics gives the venue more freedom. Every six to eight weeks, the wines are changed and, depending on customer interest or buyer enthusiasm, the theme of the machines can be switched.

For a by-the-glass menu to be economically viable, ideally each bottle should be finished at the end of service, thus guaranteeing no wastage. At some establishments, this will happen anyway. Take Pied à Terre in central London for example. Here 50% of diners don’t even open the wine list, giving the sommeliers immense power in what to recommend, making half-full bottles an unlikely sight.

But not everywhere is lucky enough to have such a strong sommelier-to-customer relationship, so a way of keeping half-full bottles fresh is essential to stay afloat.

When I asked Sunday Express columnist and wine science guru, Jamie Goode, what affects the way a wine tires, the answer was simple: oxidation, oxidation, oxidation.

So what are the options? Either extracting excess air by vacuum – think the homely vac-u-vin hand pump – or forcing it out with a blanket of heavier-than-air inert gas. Having discounted vac-u-vin in a busy on-trade environment (it takes too long, and you can’t hear the vital ‘click’ that says the right vacuum has been reached), how do you decide what is right for you?

Imbibe assembled four of the most popular systems, recruited our team of judges and tasked them with assessing how the organoleptic qualities of a quartet of wines evolve over a two week period

Size Does Matter

Legally, still wine may only be sold in multiples of 125ml and 175ml, although carafes of 500ml are also allowed. Spirits have their own specified measures. Interestingly, fortified and sparkling wines are not restricted.

Smaller still wine samples may be given away, but legally they can’t be sold for consumption in a bar or restaurant. This negates one of the added extras of today’s gas-blanket wine cabinets: the ability to dispense and charge for sample-sized servings, typically of pricey wines, a restriction that both The East Room and Selfridges have found to their cost.

Crucially, the one exception appears to be private members’ clubs, where technically the members ‘own’ the wine, and the barmen is simply ‘redistributing’ it.

How the trial worked

The abilities of two vacuum-based systems, Presorvac and Verre de Vin, were compared with two gas blanketing machines, Enomatic and Wine Saver Pro, alongside a Vacu Vin, and a ‘control’ bottle of each wine (one that had been opened, then stoppered since the start).

Where & Who: Hakkasan, London, with an impeccable team of judges.

What: A quartet of wines chosen to embody a variety of styles, see overleaf.

How: Each bottle of every wine was quality checked prior to the trial by an independent assessor. The wines were tasted at the outset, and on four separate occasions over the next fortnight. At each tasting session, a fresh bottle was tasted first, followed by samples from each of the four systems under test, in a random order, finishing with the ‘control’ (see above). Fresh glasses were used for each sample. Wines were marked out of 10 in five areas: Aromatics, Fruit & Flavour, Acidity & Freshness, Texture & Complexity, and Length, with the scores totalled and compared with the corresponding mark for the fresh bottle. As well as the overall performance, one defining feature of each wine was followed over
the fortnight.


Panel (from left to right)

Andrew Connor, head sommelier and wine buyer, The Lanesborough Benoit Allauzan, head sommelier, The Greenhouse Christine Parkinson, group wine buyer, Hakkasan group Matt Wilkin, proprietor The Princess Victoria, former Ruinart Sommelier of the Year Clare Young, managing director, Vintellect training consultancy


The Trial

The day after the first May Bank Holiday, our panel of five convened in the Ling Ling room at Hakkasan for the first of five tastings. At this meeting, the mission was to evaluate each of the four wines being put into the trial and to discuss protocol. Following that, on Days 4, 7, 10 and 14, our judges met again. This time there were seven samples of each wine: a fresh bottle, the four systems under trial, a Vacu Vin sample, plus a ‘control’ bottle that had simply been stoppered since the start.


The Wines

For our four guinea pigs, we chose a New World and an Old World red and white, with varying characteristics, but of the quality that would be likely to feature on a progressive by-the-glass list.


Grove Mill, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2006, New Zealand Screwcap, £5.82, MHUK A typically zesty, aromatic example of Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc; intense but not particularly complex on the palate: asparagus, green capsicum, pea sprouts, mangetout, citrus fruits, grapefruit, pineapple and passionfruit. Would the vibrant aromatics survive? Characteristic to follow: Aromatics

Results
The wine retained its qualities well for at least a week, with the vacuum-based systems doing better than the gas-blanketing ones.

At Day 7, although the wine still had a good average score in the early 90s, the aromatics had lessened, with not all systems preserving the greenness. Over the next week, the aromas moved more towards the tropical fruit spectrum.

VERDICT: Ideal for such systems; good for a week.

Allende Rioja Blanco 2005, Rioja Alta, Spain Cork, £11.25, Fields, Morris & Verdin Great example of a modern Rioja, this was on the podium in Imbibe’s Winter Wines Tasting last year. Complex yet gentle,
with butterscotch and starfruit on the nose, deftly woven sweet oak, a leesy palate and a lengthy finish.
Characteristic to follow: Texture & Complexity

Results The intricacies of the Allende Rioja Blanco just about survived until Day 7, with the vacuum-systems again performing the best. The second week saw a noticeable evolution of character, with the fruit receding and the oak becoming more prominent. VERDICT: Don’t go more than
a week.
Domaine Gilles Robin, Cuvée Albéric Bouvet Crozes Hermitage 2005, Rhône, France Cork, £11.60, Great Western Wine Our Old World red was a winner from Imbibe’s recent Crozes vs Gigondas tasting. A complex nose of sprightly red fruit leads to a balanced, medium-bodied palate with good fruit intensity, spicy notes of subtle white pepper and savoury hints. Fine tannins and a long finish. Characteristic to follow: Texture & Complexity

Results The Crozes really did not take to
being kept waiting. Although there was some pleasant evolution early on, beyond the four-day mark the fruit disappeared, bitter notes crept in and everything became a bit duller. By Day 14, it was not a pleasant experience.
VERDICT: Stick to two or three days.
Linda Domas Egidio Shiraz 2005,
McLaren Vale, South Australia
Screwcap, £10.27, Novum Wines Another top scorer from Imbibe’s Winter Wines tasting, our New World red has an intense nose of earthy, meaty, plummy, black fruits and dried fruit, with a note of coconut, soft tannins, balanced acidity and good length. Characteristic to follow: Fruit & Flavour

Results At the Day 7 mark Vacu Vin, Enomatic and Presorvac performed best, while by Day 14, Wine Saver Pro had taken the lead. Inevitably the wine evolved, and at Day 7 freshness had been lost, but overall the wine was still drinking well. VERDICT: Four days fine; one week OK with Presorvac, Enomatic and Wine Saver Pro.

WHITES CONCLUSION

  • Surprisingly, perhaps, the whites did well overall, neither falling to pieces nor losing all their fruit.
  • High acidity, as with New Zealand Sauvignons, helps to buffer the inevitable oxidation that happens due to dissolved oxygen in the wine.
  • A wine reared in an oxidative environment, like a barrel-aged Rioja, has begun its flavour evolution.
  • More research needs to be done with white wines under gas blanket systems.

RED CONCLUSIONS

  • In contrast to the whites, the gas blanketing systems did better by Day 14.
  • Contrary to popular expectations, reds do not survive better over time. While being kept without air, the dissolved oxygen within the wine perhaps causes the wine to develop in an unpredictable manner.
  • Old World Syrah has already gained notoriety as the most unstable varietal for this sort of exercise. So research your wines carefully.
  • Older red wines do survive well, perhaps because they have already done most of their ageing.

Waiter’s Friend PresorVac

What it is: Vacuum-based hand-held unit that can also re-repressurise sparkling wine by pumping air back in. Claims: Two weeks.  

How it did

Presorvac did well up to Day 7, after which the whites performed better than the reds, although the Old World Syrah didn’t do well with any system.

Aromatics did well on the Grove Mill up to Day 7, becoming more herbaceous and less intense thereafter. Texture & Complexity for both Old World wines were exceptionally preserved for the first week, after which the Rioja plateaued and the Crozes Hermitage rapidly declined. Fruit & Flavour did well up to Day 7 for the Domas Shiraz, improving for a few of the judges by Day 4, before a steady decline.  

Tricky bits: Simply remembering to use the system each time.  

Pros Cons
  • Cost
  • Handy
  • No extra gas cylinders necessary
  • Light, portable, simple to use
  • No maintenance necessary
  • Pour-seal-and-save stoppers useful
  • Also seals sparkling wine
  • Needs plugging in
  • Can be moved easily and get lost
  • Doesn’t have the ‘glamour’ factor
  • No built-in temperature control
  • Staff must remember to seal bottles
  • Customers cannot use
  • No data collection
  • Some sommeliers question the device’s durability in busy environment

Key Accounts

  • Ransome’s Dock
  • London Midlands Hotels, Derby (part of Best Western)
  • Gascoyne Place,
  • Bath Ode Restaurant, Devon
  • Spain: 1,200 for Codorníu for a special by-the-glass promotional roll out

Facts & Figures

UK agent: Waiter’s Friend, 01483 560695, www.waitersfriend.com/presorvac Trade price: £234 +VAT; inc stoppers & resealers

  • Launch: 2007, with pre-release testing in 2006
  • Available in 19 countries, from Argentina to the US.
  • 43,500 units sold in last year; 2,500 in the UK.

Verdict

Good value solution for small- to medium-sized, organised operation where wine plays a strong support role and where the machine’s handiness will not be a recipe for it getting lost


Verre de Vin

What it is: A vacuum-based system with air-injection option for sparkling wines. Two models available: a stand alone, that fits neatly below the bar (see right), or a more visible bottle shaped one for back bar wall. Seals within 2-5 seconds. Capable of 15 seals within 5 minutes. Claims: Three weeks.

How it did

The whites responded better to Verre de Vin treatment than the reds, particularly in the first week. The scores at Day 4 showed Verre de Vin at the top with the two Old World wines and in second place with all the others.

Aromatics on the Grove Mill did pretty well, certainly in the first week, weakening a touch by the end. Texture & Complexity of the Old World duo did very well up to Day 4, before progressively weakening. And Fruit & Flavour for the Linda Domas Shiraz reached the Day 7 mark in good shape.

Tricky bits: None. Simple and easy to use.  

Pros Cons
  • Tried and tested
  • Discreet and handy
  • Can be retrofitted
  • Still or still/sparkling units available
  • One-off cost, plus minimal follow-ons
  • No limit on number of bottles
  • Takes 2-5 seconds to seal each bottle
  • Easy to work
  • Doesn’t have the ‘glamour’ factor
  • No built-in temperature control
  • Staff must always remember to
  • seal bottles
  • Customers cannot use
  • No data collection possible

Key UK Accounts

  • All 3 Michelin-starred restaurants inthe UK
  • The Harrow Inn, Little Bedwyn
  • Arbutus, London
  • Woods Bar & Dining Room, Dulverton; all 450 wines available by-the-glass
  • Waddesdon Manor; offers First Growths by the glass

Facts & Figures

Company: Bermar, 01473 612062, www.leverredevin.com Trade price: from £1,750 ex-VAT, for still wine system (inc installation and one-year warranty)

  • Launch: 1991
  • 25,000 installations in over 70 countries, from the Maldives to India, Uruguay to Korea.
  • 9,000 in UK, most sold via wine wholesalers. Over 50 accounts sell over 100 wines by the glass
  • Grown by 220% in last five years

Verdict

Ideal for use in a busy but organised restaurant/bar with good wine turnover, and where food is the star rather than wine.


Wine Saver Pro

What it is: A five-bottle, argon-based wine preservation system with no external requirements. Can stand-alone on any bar surface. Claims: Over three weeks.

How it did

One of the best set of scores at Day 4, the Wine Saver Pro continued well, coming out top with the two reds on Day 10 and Day 14.

Following a good start on Day 4, Grove Mill’s Aromatics evolved before fading. The Texture & Complexity for the Rioja Blanco survived pretty much intact up to Day 7, and remained uniformly good for the Crozes Hermitage. Finally, the Fruit & Flavour for the Domas Shiraz gave a creditable performance up to Day 7, before losing its way in the second week.  

Tricky bits: Ensuring the pour heads are firmly wedged into the bottles. 

Pros Cons
  • Cost
  • Very portable: can sit on a bar
  • Doesn’t need any extra attachments
  • Argon supplies come in small cylinders that can be delivered in post
  • Easy to set up
  • Easy to use
  • No temperature control, so only suitable for red wines, unless unit placed in fridge
  • Customers cannot use
  • No data capture
  • Need regular cleaning regime
  • wine preservation trial

Key Accounts

  • Lazy Lounge, Leeds

US (Since so new, at trial stage elsewhere in the UK):

  • Hersheys Resort, Philadelphia
  • Dylan’s Prime, New York
  • Churrascaria Plataforma, New York
  • Williams-Sonoma, leading US homeware chain: 500 units

Facts & Figures

Agent in UK: Jim Hellion, 07765 472263; www.hellionwines.com; [email protected]

Trade price: £399 ex-VAT per five-bottle unit.

  • American invention

Verdict

Good for reds on a back bar for a small- to medium-sized operation. Simple, versatile and not too expensive, this could be coupled with another system for whites.


VACU VIN

The alert ones among you will have noticed that Vacu Vin appeared on the Wines over Time graphs. We used Vacu Vin as a reference point, and its strong performance illustrates that a vacuum-based preservation system does work. Unfortunately because of the time it takesto evacuate each bottle, it is not a feasible solution for the on-trade. Experience shows that, on average it takes 20 seconds to Vacu Vin a bottle. In a busy set-up, if it takes longer than 5 seconds, it won’t get done until the end ofservice, which could be as long as five hours. And at that stage, for an extensive by-the-glass list,
even 20 seconds is too long.


Enomatic

What it is: A range of 4- and 8-bottle Enoline units, plus a 16-bottle Enoround kiosk, or a custom-built Enosystem, with or without temperature control; 3 levels, from push-button, through smart-card-operated, to system connected to Enobox, including tailored Enosoft software with sophisticated data capture capabilities (extra cost).

Claims: Over three weeks.

How it did

Although the Rioja Blanco rallied by Day 7, The New World pair did better than the Old World wines in the first week, before beginning a gentle decline. The Enomatic performed well with the challenges posed by the most unstable wine, the Crozes Hermitage.   Aromatics on the Grove Mill stayed in good shape until Day 14, Texture & Complexity for the Rioja Blanco rallied by Day 7 and did well for the Crozes until the final on Day 14, and Fruit & Flavour on the Domas Shiraz looked good until Day 10 Post Script Each year over 7.5m glasses are poured using this system with no problem, so it was strange that, at the first tasting session, an odd flavour was picked up on the palate by several of the judges, described as cardboardy or dusty. This disappeared subsequently, only to be picked up again by a few on Day 14. 

Since the system had been installed and previously tested by Enomatic themselves, the manufacturers were at a loss to explain this. Since no wine is left in the pour head after each serve, due to the patented ‘final burst’, whereby the gas expels the last few millilitres, it was not likely to be due to oxidised wine. Nothing like this had been reported before and neither of the most experienced Enomatic owners in the UK on-trade, Jamie Stephenson of The Sampler (10 machines) and Dawn Davies at Selfridges, had come across this either.   Because the Wine Saver Pro did not have a chilling mechanism, the Enomatic wines were the only ones that were chilled and thus easily identifiable by the tasters. So the decision was taken in the interests of consistency for comparison to turn off the refrigeration on the Enomatic, leaving all wines at cellar temperature.  

Tricky bits: Placing bottles correctly at the outset to ensure proper seal.


Pros Cons
  • The look
  • Stock control
  • Easy to use once installed
  • Temperature control
  • Options for different serving sizes and digital price display
  • Sampling abilities
  • Option to customise system with rechargeable and reusable SmartCards, plus data capture options
  • Customer self-service, interaction
  • and interest
  • Good aftercare support
  • Automatic self-cleaning of pour-head
  • after each serve
  • The cost
  • Only seals a limited number of wines 
  • Needs to be fitted
  • Needs dedicated space; difficult to retrofit
  • Needs gas supplies if not powered by a nitrogen generator (extra cost)
  • Needs a person to monitor it
  • Takes time to change wines
  • Takes a bit of time to get used to; like, say, a coffee machine
  • Needs maintenance contract
  • Needs regular cleaning
  • If amount left is less than glass size requested, the machine won’t dispense

Key Accounts

London:

  • Apsleys at The Lanesborough
  • The East Room
  • The Sampler Selfridges

Facts & Figures

UK Agent: Enotrade, 01603 611451, www.enomatic.it Trade price: from £5K per four-bottle unit ex-VAT (inc installation, one-year warranty).

  • Launch: 2002
  • Available in 72 countries, from Azerbaijan to Mauritius.
  • 1,500 units sold worldwide in last year; 100+ units now in UK

Verdict

Great for putting wines centre stage and letting customers get involved. Space- and money-hungry.


over to you…

Hundreds of samples later, and what’s the verdict? Perhaps predictably, it’s horses for courses. Both types of system (vacuum and gas-based) do an adequate job of keeping wine fresh at least up to a week, some longer, but few shorter. If your need is purely to keep wine fresh, then evaluate one of the vacuum-based systems. If you want to add some glamour to the proceedings, if you can make the sums work and if you have an interest in capturing sales data, then consider the cabinets.  

Even if you have the funds, though, a cabinet system is not always right for all. One highly respected outlet reverted back to straightforward Vacu Vin because of what they saw as the hassle factor of maintenance and space requirements.  

Apart from WineSaver Pro, which has been developed to sit on a bar, it is not easy to retrofit gas-powered systems. Of course, it’s not impossible, but these babies need planning, with pipes, gas and air supplies all to be taken into account. The best way to install a wine preservation cabinet is, without a doubt, at the beginning of a build or refurbishment, where they can be integrated from scratch.  

Not that this factor is putting off a number of highly respected pub, bar and restaurant groups. Enomatic received hundreds of enquiries following its appearance at this year’s London International Wine Fair.  

For the gas-blanket machines, don’t underestimate the amount of gas you’ll need, allow a bit of settling in time, and make sure you have a good service contract for any niggles that may arise.

Choice of wines  

There’s no point putting swift sellers or house wines into a climate controlled cabinet unless they are pricey. Cheap house wines will move fast enough anyway, and with a fast mover, you will spend more time changing the bottle than dispensing. Above all, run your own experiments. Use every opportunity to taste the wines you are putting into each system as the days go by. Identify what works best for your machine.  

If you’re using an Enobox or similar data-capturing facility, situate it near the machines. Each time a wine is changed, you’ll need to verify the new one, and a four-minute mile from bar floor to office doesn’t look dignified.

But before getting lost in a sea of technicalities, remember, as Hakkasan’s Christine Parkinson says, ultimately a sommelier who can sell that last glass is worth more than any of these machines. 


Keep it clean

Gas-driven wine dispensers use straws made of either stainless steel or food-grade plastic to draw up the wine. Although modern machines now expel the last bits of wine in the pour head after each serve, both straws and pour heads need regular cleaning to prevent any build-up of tannins, sugars or other unwanted debris. With a general daily wipe down, the cleaning advice is to run a citric acid solution (1:4 lemon juice to water) through the system at regular intervals, for example, when the bottle is changed. Enomatic also offers a six-monthly full service (at a cost) where the whole machine is taken apart and crucial rubber components and washers are replaced. As with all complex pieces of equipment, it makes sense to appoint one of your staff as its ‘monitor’, perhaps incentivising him or her, to ensure the machine is kept in tip-top condition.

Listen up, you at the back…

As the UK’s leading expert on systems for preserving wine, Imbibe asked Clare Young for her top tips when choosing what route to go down

Consider the following:

1 Price: If you are likely to be offering several wines which sell for over £10 per glass then you may need a more sophisticated form of preservation. Customers are more likely to spend £20 or £30 on a glass of wine if they can see it is displayed in a dedicated cabinet which not only preserves wine but dispenses it at the right temperature.
2 Number: Some preservation systems allow you to offer an unlimited number of wines by the glass. Consider also the volume and speed of service since some systems are better for busy bars.
3 Space: Obviously space is an important consideration too; not just space for the system, but space for the bottles ensuring that every wine can be stored and served at the correct temperature. .
4 Still or sparkling? Red or white?: Only Verre de Vin and Presorvac can preserve sparkling as well as still wine, and Wine Saver Pro is really designed for bars which are more interested in preserving red wines.
5 In the mix: Some bars adopt more than one system. They may, for example, have a nitrogen cabinet for still wines but use Verre de Vin for sparkling.

6 Ease of use & support: How easy is it to use the system, how much training is required for staff, how easy is the cleaning regime, and what are the terms and costs for regular maintenance.
7 Budget: Preservation systems range from under £250 to over £10,000. While price may be a consideration, your potential return on investment is far more important when making the decision.

wine preservation trial

BEST FOR…

Busy bar & Local pub
Presorvac for whites & sparkling, Wine Saver Pro for reds. Neighbourhood restaurant
Verre de Vin Gastropub Enomatic, with self serve capabilities for oenonauts to play with. Top-drawer establishment
Enomatic if wine is part of the theatre, Verre de Vin if wine needs to be good, but doesn’t need the limelight.


A major thank you to our judges for donating their expertise, and a huge vote of thanks to Christine Parkinson and all her team at Hakkasan – Bekir, Diana, Damian, Philippe – for hosting thetrial. Finally, thanks to the wine suppliers, who kindly donated the wine.


Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – July / August 2009

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