Cork Wine Stoppers Making a Comeback

The Portugal News Online, June 25, 2011

Portugal’s cork industry is celebrating the return of the cork wine stopper. Last week Auchan, the French supermarket chain, announced a move back to traditional corks for all its own-label wines, a policy already adopted by Sainsbury’s in Britain.

A few years ago the world’s greatest experts had forecast its imminent demise with absolute certainty. It was a thing of the past, they said; a gift from Mother Nature destined to be overtaken by man-made materials.

Recently at Vinexpo, the world’s biggest wine fair in Bordeaux, southwest France, the old fashioned cork seemed likely to prove its critics wrong.

Traditional cork-makers are winning back market share in the face of competition from producers of synthetic wine stoppers and screw caps. The cork declined for years, but the trend turned around in 2010, and has been especially obvious so far this year.

One explanation is an improvement in production techniques, which mean that fewer bottles fall victim to the unpleasant taste attributed to tainted corks. Snobbery, however, appears to be a far more important factor.

Studies have shown that bottles with a natural cork are assumed by consumers around the world to be better than those with a synthetic cork or screw cap.

“If you’ve got a cork in the bottle, you sell more and at a higher price,” said Mr. Aracil a spokesman for the French Federation of Cork Unions.

Wine corks are made from the bark of the cork oak, an evergreen tree found mainly in Portugal and accounting for 50 per cent of global supply. The trees need to be 40 years old or so before they are ready to produce a good wine stopper, but can then carry on doing so for up to two centuries.

Many wine producers turned away from the cork oak forests of the Iberian Peninsula in the 1990s, after studies showed that up to 7 per cent of bottles sealed in traditional fashion were “corked” — the term that describes wine affected by a contaminated cork.

Robert Parker, the world’s most influential wine critic, had gone so far as to predict the demise of the cork by 2015, saying that almost all bottles would be sealed by screw caps by that date.

That prediction now seems unlikely, given that sales of wine corks rose by 7 per cent last year, and have increased by 12 per cent in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period in 2010.

Amorim, a Portuguese company that is the world’s largest producer of natural wine corks, registered record sales of 3.2 billion stoppers last year.

Its business in Britain rose by 50 per cent, and António Amorim, the chief executive, predicted that even Australia, which led the move towards man made stoppers, would return to the bark of the cork oak.

The comeback of the cork is an enormous relief for many environmentalists, who had feared that the rise of the screw cap would lead to the destruction of Portugal’s cork oak forests, which are home to endangered species such as the Iberian lynx, Barbary deer and the imperial Iberian eagle. Mr. Aracil said: “The environmental issue has been very important in the revival. It is a key argument.”

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