Uncorking a debate

Uncorking a debate

‘To cork, or not to cork', that is the question, as Federico Valori explains

Production | 07 Apr 2003 | Issue 30 | By Federico Valori

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Travelling south from Lisbon towards the Odemira district in the Baixo Alentejo region of Portugal, I am eagerly on the lookout for the first sight of a cork tree. It will not be long before cork oak forests stretch as far as the eye can see. Solemnly imposing, having crowned these hills and mountains for centuries, they convey a reassuring sense of continuity, stability and tradition.My original interest in the cork tree is admittedly related to the great cork debate that in the past few years has filled pages of the British press, demanding better quality stoppers and blaming cork for millions of bottles ruined each year in Britain alone.To cork or not to cork? This seems to be the question – or in fact, choice – for the wine industry. Now, and for the first time in its history, the cork industry is faced with serious competition from alternative wine closure solutions. Whisky distilleries also have to choose between screwcaps and cork stoppers, but their criteria and concerns are different, and the resulting impact on the cork industry is less significant.Given the increasing market share gained by plastic stoppers and screwcaps – driven by an aggressive global marketing campaign and openly supported by most supermarkets, which in the UK account for 75 per cent of wine imports – the threat to the cork industry is a serious one. Having enjoyed the enviable position of being the sole supplier of the only viable closure solution to wine producers for centuries, the cork industry has been caught with its pants down. What makes this particularly relevant is that, although cork is used in many applications, from the scientific to the leisure industry, the best quality cork is in fact used to produce bottle stoppers, a business that accounts for as much as 75 per cent of the value of all cork exports in Portugal and Spain. As a result, the entire cork and cork-related industry depends on the drinks industry.In the wake of an increasingly hostile market environment, the role of APCOR, the Portuguese Cork Association, is today more important than ever.“To protect and promote the image of cork, we launched an 8-million global marketing campaign in 2002 as well as funding a 2.5 million research program concerning the TCA problem, which is the primary cause of the worldwide outcry against cork stoppers,” says Joaquim Lima, APCOR’s director.TCA contamination is responsible for turning perfectly good wine into ‘corked’ wine, or, at least, it used to be. In recent years, further to general efforts to promote a more appropriate phrase, we now use the politically correct ‘cork taint’, shifting the blame from the cork itself to the chemical compound responsible for the nasty aroma.Language, as usual, offers an insight. The worldwide adoption, in its various forms, of the phrase ‘corked’ reflects the image of an industry which, until seriously threatened, had done little to promote or improve the quality of its products. Armando Coelho, one of the three founders
of Álvaro Coelho & Irmãos, S.A., one of the most important firms in Portugal, admits: “It’s easier today for the cork industry to grant 80 per cent reliability than it was 10 years ago to grant 20 per cent.”The industry, by extension, has over the years also become ‘corked’.But what is TCA? A mould-based organic chemical, 2-4-6 Trichloroanisole results from the chemical reaction of moulds and chlorine with organic compounds present in cork as well as other plants. When the reaction occurs, the compound can be passed on from the cork stopper to the wine, or whisky, resulting in an unpleasant musty aroma. ‘Rotten corks’ ruin 40 million bottles a year in UK alone, claims a recent
survey carried out by the Wine and Spirit Association. However, as all cork producers will emphasise, not all ‘musty’ aromas blamed on cork taint are actually cork-related. Furthermore, TCA can also be transferred to wine from contaminated bottling equipment or lax wine-making.The same contamination process that affects wine can and does also affect whisky. However, whisky-lovers need not worry as much as wine-lovers.“Out of 15 million bottles that we sold with cork closures last year, we received only 13 complaints which we positively identified and attributed to cork taint,” confirms Dr. Bill Lumsden, head of distilleries and maturation at Glenmorangie plc.The high quality of the cork used, its special treatment and the fact that, unlike wine, whisky bottles are stored upright are some of the contributing factors to the low level of TCA contamination occurrences.Because of the low contamination risk, other criteria become more important when choosing the closure type for whisky. As a rule, the better quality and more expensive whiskies are bottled with cork simply because of the qualitative and prestigious image that customers expect from such a product, many distilleries have confirmed.That is not to say that price and image are the only issues. The relative strength of the cork, for instance, has proved a decisive factor for some distilleries in their decision to switch from cork to screwcaps for certain products, particularly those aimed at bars and restaurants.“We have opted for screwcaps as some of the corks were continually breaking due to frequent handling,” says Rebecca Richardson, of J & G Grant.Technical speculations aside, pro-cork campaigns have generally been constructed around arguments in support of tradition or the environment. “Thanks to their unique properties, cork forests bring several significant benefits to society. Among these is protection against erosion and fire, climate regulation and landscape enrichment,” says Juseppe Paolo Martines, president of Quercus, the National Association for the Conservation of Nature. Furthermore, the montados – the agro-silvipastoral systems developed over centuries around the cork oak tree – support an extraordinary level of biodiversity and shelter some of the most endangered animal species in Europe; in particular, Bonelli’s eagle and the ‘Tiger of Europe’, the Iberian lynx – the most endangered big cat in the world.Yet these arguments have, paradoxically, worked against the cork industry. Claudia Falley from Amorim & Irmãos, S.A., the largest producer of cork stoppers in the world, agrees.“We do not want our clients to choose our product just because it is natural, recyclable and good for the environment.“We are working to eradicate the only problem holding our product back, and that is TCA contamination.”No tradition for tradition’s sake seems to be the new motto of the cork industry. The revolution doesn’t stop, however, at technological investments and eradicating TCA. An improved production process allows more waste material to be used in wine stopper production.“This, coupled with more and better regulated cork farming and healthier forests, means that coping with increasing demand will never be an issue,” points out Armando Coelho.Cork manufacturers have also extended their global presence. Having established local agencies, they can now deal directly with buyers around the world, improving business relations and taking more control over the management, distribution and supply of their products.“In the past, we would sell quantities of cork stoppers via third-party agencies without any precise idea about the final destination of our product,” admits Coelho.“Now, we are able to advise on the right cork closure to match the bottle shape and the chemical structure of the wine .”However, to regulate, standardise and guarantee an acceptable level of quality industry-wide, drastic changes are needed. At the moment, an APCOR membership is no guarantee of any standard level of quality in the same way as, for instance, a DOCG certificate is for an Italian wine.To address this, an International Code of Cork Stopper Manufacturing Practice was implemented in 2000 to set adequate standards. However, out of over 800 firms in the Portuguese cork sector, nearly 300 are APCOR members. Of these, just 138 have adopted the international code of practice. Only a few of these have enough resources to implement the technologies that are driving the industry forward.“Our aim is to bring all members under the international code of practice within five years,” specifies Joaquim Lima.Undoubtedly, as Armando Coelho says, “the cork industry has done more in the past five years than in its entire history.” That may be true, but only the next five years will prove them right – or wrong.
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