By Walter Sanders
We’ve all heard the rumblings.
Corks are dying and alternative wine closures are the saviors of consistency, convenience, cost and quality.
Chances are you have encountered screw tops, synthetic corks, composite corks or glass stoppers in wine bottles at restaurants, wine shops and parties. What’s going on with alternative wine closures?
To learn more about the issues, I read the IACP Award-winning To Cork or Not to Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science, And the Battle for the Wine Bottle by George M. Taber (Scribner, 2007).
Well, my wine-loving amici, there is no comprehensive single answer to the red, white and blush question of what is going to win the battle for the wine bottle. The author documents the immense energy, time, money and research invested in the closure wars…and the battlegrounds are shifting. Here are his 2006 statistics:
- Some 20 billion wine bottle closures were used in 2006
- 13 billion were still natural corks
- 3 billion were technical or composite corks
- 2.5 billion were plastic corks
- 1.5 billion were screwcaps
- 20 million were glass stoppers
Those numbers indicate that cork still has an 80% market share but “that’s down from a virtual monopoly two decades ago,” says Taber. Cork growers, particularly the Portuguese, have the most to lose. Amorim, the largest producer, has invested in technology, cleaner harvesting and manufacturing processes, and testing to try and minimize TCA-produced “corking” (that awful wet-newspaper aroma and taste emitted by a corked wine) and oxidation issues.
Now the cork industry has the tough sell, after generations of blaming wineries and consumers for tainted wines, of admitting the TCA problem and offering an improved cork closure product.
Meanwhile, wine makers slugging it out in a highly competitive marketplace are embracing new closure alternatives that help ensure consistency, minimize returned product, and are cost effective and marketable. That last hurdle might be the highest.
Wine makers, merchants and serving establishments must overcome the ritualistic tradition that many higher-end consumers have of using a corkscrew to open a bottle, and the perception that a bottle without a real cork is a low-end product.
The book details much of the research, science, manufacturing challenges, consumer perceptions, geographic preferences, product competition and real-world marketing issues that are driving change in the industry.
Taber is pretty sure of three outcomes of the closure wars: “American consumers are deciding the future of wine bottle-closures…” Why? Because of the immense potential of our market.
Secondly, “The new emphasis on closures will be putting a lot more pressure on winemakers” because they will no longer be able to blame every fault of the wine on the cork.
And finally, “No (closure) product will ever again enjoy a monopoly.”
The three largest cork-producing countries (Portugal, Spain and Italy) are among the slowest adopters of alternative closures for wine bottles.
In fact Italy and Spain, in an effort to protect their cork production industries, have both legislated that their higher designated wines (DOC and DOCG in Italy) must be closed with cork to ensure the award of the designation.
Taber doesn’t think that those transparent restrictions will deter bold Italian winemakers whose products have long outpaced stodgy categorizations. Neither do I.
Sharon and I have recently enjoyed an Italian product that uses the clever, Alcoa-produced glass stopper (the evolution of this product is well-researched by Taber). Bottled by Cusumano of Palermo, Sicily, and marketed as Benuara, the 2006 I.G.T. Nero d’Avola and Syrah blend was a lush complement to a hearty dinner of roasted chicken and root vegetables.
What do I like about the Vino-Lok (or here in the U.S., Vino-Seal) closure? It is clean, elegant and re-usable. Pop off the sleek aluminum overcap, and then pull out the glass stopper with your fingers. No corkscrew needed. Plus the glass topper makes re-sealing the bottle (not an issue at our home) very easy.
What kind of experiences have you had with corks? What do you think the future holds for alternative closures?