Put a Cork in it: Corks are Here to Stay

When it comes to wine closures, corks are customary. Corks have been around since the 15th century because of their natural ability to be just malleable enough to contain wine inside a glass bottle. Over the past decade or so, however, cork alternatives have become much more common -- making up about one-third of the total 18 billion closures worldwide. In an unprecedented shift, wine producers grew tired of high prices and technical inefficiency of corks, and turned to synthetic closures as the remedy. Despite modern alternatives, corks are here to stay and here is why:

1. People associate corks with higher quality.

In a Grape Collective article, Jameson Fink described a study by Tragon Corporation which detailed, “93 percent of U.S. wine consumers associate natural cork with higher quality wines, while only 11 percent of U.S. wine consumers believe wines sealed with a screw cap to be of high quality." The research further revealed how natural corks can enhance a purchase decision, whereas alternative wine closure may lead to discouragement. Essentially, no matter whether a connoisseur, eager learner, or newbie you mostly prefer and want cork. Read more about the study here: https://grapecollective.com/articles/does-cork-signifiy-higher-quality-wine-to-us-consumers

2. Longstanding tradition and industry.

The cork industry has been around for 500 years. Cork is made through the delicate process of harvesting bark from cork oak trees that have aged at least 25 years. The highly skilled workers who remove the bark are known as "extractors" and are given special status because of their ability to be strong yet gentle with the trees. They peel away delicate bark in uniform sheets and then, without breaking, transport them by hand since vehicle accessibility is rare. In fact, the entire production process is quite an amazing display of human ingenuity in tandem with the natural environment: http://www.wineanorak.com/corks/howcorkismade.htm  

Acclaimed with best quality, most corks come from Portugal, specifically the forests of Algarve and Alentejo. 500 factories and over 20,000 workers are dedicated to the country’s trade. In the foremost position, Portugal produces more than half (54 percent) of the commercial corks, and accounts for about 70 percent of world trade. The colossal cork industry is not going anywhere, as 100 million dollars are spent of cork products every year.

3. No more cork taint, almost.

Cork alternatives, namely screw caps and plastic stoppers, made their international debut in the 1990s. Their ability to prevent cork taint associated with natural cork grew mass appeal. Famously, Australian wine, over 85 percent of which is now under screw cap, has led the screw cap campaign. While natural cork industry had lost 30 percent market share to alternative closures, since producers have enhanced manufacturing to reduce the incidence of cork taint. Once as high as 5 – 10 percent, the rate of occurence is now reported to be less than 1 percent.

The Portuguese Cork Association (APCOR) has increased research and development beyond the point of closure. For example, 40 researchers are currently investigating ways to make the cork oak trees grow faster (extraction is currently limited to nine year intervals). APCOR, moreover, has launched the 100 Percent Cork marketing campaign aimed at branding their product as the best option for wine producers, consumers and the natural environment. Such innovations have led to a consistent recapture of the market share in recent years.

4. Environmentally friendly.

Not a single tree is cut down during harvesting. Extraction, when done properly, does not damage the cork oak. Unlike synthetic alternatives, cork is completely biodegradable and a renewable resource. It is rare to find a product so “green” and so fitting for mass consumption.

Cork oak is a slow growing tree that may live for 200 years. Yet it is very sensitive to its environment. Alterations to humidity or temperature could endanger forests of cork oak. The 100 Percent Cork marketing campaign champions cork products as protectors of forest preservation, biodiversity, and climate change. Maybe they are going a little too far. Nonetheless, the branding of “zero carbon footprint” is important to new generations of wine consumers who are environmentally conscious.

5. Aging.

Cork closures are the best candidates for aging. Corks allow for a consistent oxygen transmission rate (OTR), which means small amounts of oxygen pass through the cork and interact with the wine. During this interaction, micro-oxygenation alters the phenolic structure of the wine, leading to variation in taste, color, and mouthfeel.

As screw caps get more advanced, they will mimic cork’s OTR. Studies have suggested screw cap's OTR to be comparable to that of cork, but these findings are mixed and not conclusive. Most wine experts agree, age with cork.