Demand for cork has bounced back as winemakers return from using screw tops and plastic stoppers back to traditional cork, according to top cork producers.
Cork, the traditional stopper for wine bottles, had been losing out to plastic versions and aluminium screw caps since 2007, as many premium wine-makers blamed it for occasionally tainting the flavour and 'corking' the wine.
However, the industry has since persuaded winemakers back to using cork by investing in research to detect the almost invisible signature of taint—the chemical compound TCA— and eliminating the tainted corks from their supply chain.
Cork is made from the protective outer layer of bark surrounding Quercus suber oak trees, which grow only in southwest Europe and northwest Africa.
In the early noughties, the industry went through a crisis after a spate low quality corks entered the supply chain, increasing instances of 'tainting' and leading winemakers to switch to screw tops and plastic stoppers.
In 2005, Laroche Wines, a French winery, which has annual sales of €25m, sealed all of its wines, including its high end Grand crus, with screw caps, but it has since switched back and now seals its top wines with un-tainted cork.
Gregory Viennois, technical director at Laroche, told Wine Spectator that since the industry’s revival, the quality of cork had increased making it more desirable for winemakers.
“After the big cork pollution crisis, the cork industry was on the defensive,” he said.
“The incredible work they did changed things and the cork quality increased drastically in the last 10 years.”
One of the world’s biggest producers, Portugal-based Corticeira Amorim who make more than 4bn cork stoppers per year, developed the technology to individually scan corks to test for the microscopic fungi causing taint.
As a result, the Lisbon-listed company’s share price has soared almost six-fold as winemakers return to using untainted cork and exports from Portugal, the world’s dominant cork producer, have regained their peaks of 15 years ago.
Cork is now used in 60% of wine bottles in the US and its share of the global market, which Amorim estimates is worth about $1.3bn a year, stands closer to 70%.
Amorim’s marketing director Carlos de Jesus told Reuters that by finding a solution to cork taint, the industry has recovered beyond expectation.
“When you go back 12, 14, 15 years, the forecast for cork was anything but optimistic,” he said.
“Where we are today is completely different territory from what most people though possible then."
After winemakers turned away from using cork, screw tops took over the Australian market to account for 90% of bottles sealed in the country. The same method was used to seal most bottles produced in South Africa and Chile, causing the cork industry to shrink considerably, according to US-based Cork Quality Council.
The global wine top market now totals 18bn bottles, of which 11.5bn are sealed with cork; 4.5bn are closed using screw caps and 2bn use plastic stoppers, according to the Cork Industry Federation.
Oxygen ingress rates, or the rate oxygen is slowly dispelled into the wine, plays a vital role in aging a wine. However, contrary to popular belief that corks dispel better, today’s screw cap have a calculated level of oxygen ingress over time whereas real corks vary, according to Wine Folly.
De Jesus added that though using corks did not necessarily have an advantage over screw tops when it came to storing wines, wine with corks benefited from its association with prestige in Asia, which could also help boost the industry.
China has emerged as a huge new market as its middle class of more than 100m people develops a taste for premium wine traditionally associated with cork usage, according to Reuters.
Matthew Gong, a Shanghai-based spokesman for Chinese wine importer ASC Fine Wines said cork usage’s association with premium labels in Europe have made it a more attractive stopper over plastic or screw top.
“It is a tradition. It represents prestige,” he said.
Cork exports to China rose 22% in 2016 and as the biggest buyer of Australian wines, the country’s preference could also have the potential power to influence how producers seal their bottles, according to cork makers’ association APCOR.
Competitor closure markets have also played a small part in reviving the industry, with the market for plastics stoppers declining, falling from 4.5bn produced in 2006/2007 to 2bn, according to the Drinks Business.
Antonio Amorim, CEO of Amorim, said the plastic stoppers market would continue to decline because plastics offered the worst protection against oxygen over time.
Tests carried out over plastic stoppers show that the synthetic material can become brittle with age allowing air to pass between the closure and the glass, ruining the taste.
Amorim added the 4.5bn screw cap market had also slowed down in growth as a result of screw cap dominant Australia and New Zealand’s winemaking industry slowing down.
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