12 September, 2012

Christian Davis looks at the latest developments in the great debate over cork versus synthetics

A DEBATE ON CLOSURES among the great and the good of the wine trade could easily fill a room – but the same topic would empty a room of consumers. 

This apposite comment from Richard Halstead, chief operating officer of Wine Intelligence, comes in his introduction to WI’s 2011 report on wine bottle closures.

Said debate has gone from a vitriolic one based almost entirely on anecdote to a more pragmatic one, based on accredited research, rigorous marketing and envisaged usage – or, more colliqually, “horses for courses”. 

In the past, media commentators were deemed to be either ‘screwcappers’ or in the pockets of the Portuguese cork producers. 

The very name of Dr Paul White, a well-known writer in Australia and New Zealand, was hissed and booed at a screwcap symposium in New Zealand some years ago. His heinous crime had been to question the science supporting the longevity of wine under screwcap. New Zealanders have been unreservedly enthusiastic about screwcap – understandably as the neutral, inert environment of the closure works well to preserve the fresh zippyness of its all-important Sauvignon Blancs. White became a hate figure for the otherwise phlegmatic Kiwis.

But the heat and hate has gone out of the debate, quips Halstead. He says: “In the consumer world, the closure is less of a political issue and more of a practical one. How easy is it to handle? How will it make me look in the eyes of my friends? What are other shoppers buying? Does it look appropriate within the context of the type of wine I’m buying? Lastly, does it do its job properly – ie seal the product so that it is in good condition?”

The UK wine sector may exude little but doom and gloom these days, but strategically it remains important. Firstly, because it is still huge but secondly (only just) because it is probably the most open wine market, both in terms of consumers demanding as comprehensive a range of wines as possible from all over the world but also open in terms of ideas and concepts.

Halstead calls the UK the “most exciting and dynamic environment for closures over the past decade”. Since 2003 wines under screwcap have risen from under 10% to between 60% and 70% of the bottles on a supermarket shelf. As most UK wine drinkers are led by multiple retailer buyers, their acceptance level of screwcap has risen from 75% to 85% and, crucially, people who said they actually preferred to buy wine under screwcap rose from 28% to 42% between 2007 and 2011.

But, to put all of this into context, the Wine Intelligence report monitors acceptance rate of natural cork at 90%. 

Amorim is the world’s largest processor of natural cork and has been at the forefront of the fight back. Its director of marketing & communication, Carlos de Jesus, tells Drinks International that total cork exports from Portugal were up 8% in 2010 and 7% in 2011. He points out that this growth is ahead of the expansion of the overall global wine market, therefore cork must be taking market share from its closure rivals. He predicts 2011 growth of the overall wine industry will be between 1.5% and 2%. “We reckon cork’s overall closure market share is around 72% and growing,” says De Jesus.

Unsurprisingly, Amorim’s largest markets are France, the US, Italy and Spain. Growth ranged from 7% to 11% and the company claims to have sold almost 300 million cork stoppers in 2010, the best result in the company’s history.

In the continuing PR battle for hearts and minds, the International Organisation of Vine & Wine (OIV) has recognised the role of natural cork closures in reducing greenhouse gases. Amorim also reports that Sandrine Garbay, cellarmaster at Château d’Yquem, producer of the most famous and most expensive dessert wine in the world, along with Philippe Guigal, general manager of E Guigal, the leading Rhône wine producer, have both spoken out in favour of traditional cork closures. 

Blow to synthetics

Last year Supreme Corq went out of business, which was a significant blow to the synthetic closures sector and specifically to injection-moulded closures. 

The principal beneficiary is Nomacorc, which boasts approximately 40% of the US market for wine bottle closures and 70% of the synthetic closure market. Its technology is based on a resin foam from polymers, which comprises 60% air, giving it better green credentials than screwcap, made from aluminium which obviously involves the less than environmentally friendly mining of bauxite, not to mention the processing.

Nomacorc claims that nearly 13% of all wine in Italy is closed with one of its stoppers, along with nearly 10% of all wine in Spain.

Jeff Slater, Nomacorc’s global marketing director, says: “Cork is 14th century, whereas Nomacorc is 21st century.” Slater extols Nomacorc’s relatively new Select range, which has been designed to provide wine producers with a range of closures to meet all their needs, be they budgetary or the wine style. “Select provides a platform so winemakers have the right tool to support their intention. The Select range of closures is appropriate to different styles, SO2 levels, oxygen ingress and shelf lives,” says Slater.

Guala Closures, which claims to be the world’s leading producer of aluminium screwcaps for wine, recently announced the launch of Viiva, claiming it to be the world’s first screwcap closure for full-size (75cl) sparkling wine bottles.

Guala says the Viiva closure is suitable for up to 5GV (gas volume) liquid pressure and will keep a sparkling wine’s correct level of carbonation for weeks after opening – even when laid side-down in the fridge. It is said to be “fully brand-able and stress-tested”.

Guala Closures sales & marketing manager Simon Yudelevich says: “It’s safe and easy to open and can be resealed without any damage to the quality of the fizz, which dramatically increases the opportunities for by-the-glass sales and drinking.”

Guala claims Viiva also offers efficiency benefits to wineries, from eliminating waste caused by TCA contamination (the chemical primarily responsible for cork taint in wines) to streamlining the supply chain as only one product is used instead of the three needed for traditional cork closures (cork, muselet and hood).

Viiva is the result of a five-year collaboration between Guala and O-I Glass.

Redressing the balance

Screwcap seems to get a poor press despite its obvious popularity at the cheaper end of the wine spectrum. So to redress the balance here’s the endorsement from major premium French wine producer Laroche, now part of the huge Advini group.

Sandrine Audegond, chef de projet marque, says: “Screwcap was first introduced in 2001 at Laroche. At the time criticism of Laroche centred not around using screwcap per se but using them for fine wines such as premiers or grands crus.

“Now, 60 % of the production is closed with screwcap. All our wines can be bought with natural cork or screwcap except La Réserve de l’Obédience, which is closed with screwcap only,” she says.

“Ten years on, we know by experience that screwcap does not harm the wine – in fact, it means that there is no development of defect or off-flavours. We note that the freshness of wine is more protected, and for longer, with screwcap.”

The big question is not what is used – cork or screwcap – but how it is used. “The ‘how’ really matters: choosing the best screwcap only and adapting the bottling line are as important as the type. And the same goes for cork,” says Audegond. “As usual and as for all steps of winemaking, the core issue is the care you have for your wine. As to our customers, some like, others do not, as usual. But when we explain, customers do understand,” says Audegond.

That probably sums it all up.

Digital Edition

Drinks International digital edition is available ahead of the printed magazine. Don’t miss out, make sure you subscribe today to access the digital edition and all archived editions of Drinks International as part of your subscription.


La'Mel Clarke

Service isn’t servitude: the skill of hosting

La’Mel Clarke, front of house at London’s Seed Library, looks at the forgotten art of hosting and why it deserves the same respect as bartending.