Several years ago, I penned a column discussing the relative qualities and desirability of various wine bottle closures. Consumers continue to be confronted with an assortment of alternatives to the traditional natural cork. Plastic corks, synthetic corks, hi-tech natural corks, glass tops and screwcaps have found their way into mainstream America.
The market for alternative closures was fomented by a growing problem with natural cork. Inconsistent quality control resulted in corks containing a chemical, Trichloroanisole (TCA), that taints a bottle of wine, causing an offensive odor (think moldy newspapers or a wet dog) that makes the wine undrinkable.
I recently attended a seminar presented by the Portuguese Cork Association in conjunction with the Cork Quality Council, a nonprofit organization founded to improve quality assurance performance, among other missions. Arranged by Colangelo & Partners, a leading wine and spirits communications agency, Dr. Paulo Lopes, head of research at Amorim Group, the largest producer of natural corks in the world, presented an enlightening interactive session.
Lopes presented an engaging view of his cork-centric focus and the good news coming from the industry. He focused on the effect of closures on wine taint, oxidation, reduction and Brettanomyces (more on these in a future column). He offered his insights into the evolution of the Portuguese cork industry, which brings me to this column’s subject.
But first a primer on natural cork.
The cork oak tree is a prolific source of cork bark. Beginning in its 25th year, it produces a new crop every nine to 12 years over its 200-year life. It is said that when the Portuguese plant a new tree, “you plant not for yourself or your son, but for your grandson.”
The cork industry is one of the best examples of sustainability. The trees are mostly self-sustaining, requiring no pesticides, herbicides, soil additives or irrigation. Over 80 percent of the hand-harvested bark is utilized for corks. The remainder is used for flooring, shoes, insulation and other commercial uses. There is no waste, making for a uniquely renewable product. One billion closures are produced annually.
At the turn of this century, it became clear that the Portuguese cork industry was its own worst enemy. It had become a monopoly, serving all wine regions with little, if any, competition. Basking in this aura, it became complacent. Defective corks were popping up with increasing frequency. It is estimated that as many as one in 15 bottles of wine were compromised in 2005. A number of winemakers fled to the growing availability of alternative closures.
The Portuguese responded to this sales slump. Improvements in production techniques, enhanced quality controls and technological innovations resulted in a significant reduction in cork taint. The Cork Quality Council estimates that the frequency of tainted wines has dropped to one in 100 bottles, an amazing improvement.
Not satisfied with this dramatic improvement, several companies have introduced new innovations.
The Amorim Group of Portugal has developed a new technology, marketed as NDtech, which “individually tests each wine cork for TCA, using unprecedented fast chromatography technology.” This equipment can “detect any cork with more than 0.5 nanograms of TCA per liter, which will be automatically removed from the supply chain.” And they back up their claim with a guarantee of veracity. Is 0.5 nanograms an acceptable level? Consider that this is the equivalent of one drop of water in 800 Olympic-sized pools.
An international company, Nomacorc, has gone a different route. It is a non-cork cork, produced from the sugar cane plant. Guaranteed to be taint-free, there is an additional attraction. Consider all of the desirable qualities of cork and then improve them. The Nomacorc corks are extruded from the plant, allowing customizable closures to regulate the amount of oxygen that permeates a bottle of wine (a very desirable quality to artisanal winemakers).
My economics professor in college spouted that competition is the mother of invention and the engine of progress. Even in the most basic of industries, I might add.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.