Portuguese corporation Amorin, the world’s largest producer of wine corks, racked up record sales of 3.2 billion bottle closures last year. Global cork exports rose by almost 20% in 2010, while in the UK, a market which has taken enthusiastically to the screwcap, cork sales rose by over 50%. Producers in both Portugal and France are predicting that the decline in cork sales, which has persisted through the past decade, has now been arrested. Sales rose by 12% during the first quarter of 2011.
For many years, wine makers claimed that up to 10% of wines were damaged by their corks, as a common cork borne mould reacted with cork cleaning substances to produce TCA, a substance which creates a musty aroma and flavour in affected wine. Led by Australian and New Zealand producers, who seem to have been particularly heavily hit by inferior cork, there was a huge swing to aluminium screwcaps which were shown to keep young drinking wines fresher for longer, by reducing oxidation and being taint free.
To its credit, the cork industry, especially in Portugal, set about cleaning up its act and it claims to have hugely reduced the incidence of taint. Some supermarket chains have been convinced, with Sainsburys in the UK going back to cork closures for own label wines and the Co-Op moving toward 30% cork closures. For environmentalists, this is good news. The manufacture of stelvin closures creates a higher level of undesirable emissions than that of corks. Cork forests, many under threat of felling as cork production declined, are also of huge environmental value. Not only do they modify local climates and protect top soils, they are home to several endangered species such as the Iberian lynx, imperial eagle and Barbary deer.
Wine corks are made from the bark of the tree and it is 40 years before a tree can yield a top quality bottle closure. After that, however, the tree will have some 200 years of productive life, making the industry a highly sustainable one.
As far as wine is concerned, while screwcaps have huge advantages for wines destined for drinking young or within a few years, some drinkers believe that the bottle environment created by high quality cork adds complexity to an aged wine – even if the price is a degree of bottle variation.
Better corks could draw producers away from synthetic plastic corks. Aesthetically unappealing, some producers believe that these allow oxidation in wines stored for more than a couple of years. Despite this, they have become the closure of choice for a growing proportion of European entry point wines; presumably it’s felt that Italian or French consumers would reject a closure which does not look like cork.
Better by far if such producers would return to natural cork for mid priced wines, while educating their customers in the advantages of stelvin for white wines and younger drinking reds.