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Amorim: Uncorking the Portuguese Cork

Posted: Monday, 17 September 2012 11:14

Amorim: Uncorking the Portuguese Cork

September 17 : The cork industry may not have yet achieved the desired target of zero defects but it has changed its arrogant attitude after coming to terms with the onslaught of alternative closures for over a decade and has infused several technical and quality protocols in order to bring the old glory back though with varying success, writes Subhash Arora who visited Amorim, the biggest natural cork producer in Portugal and studied the process from the bark to the cork.

Click For Large ViewImagine a Portuguese natural wine bottle cork named Munna singing to a screw cap from Australia in a true Dabangg style:

‘Munna badnaam hua daar-ling tere liye!’

Natural cork was the ruling and arrogant wine bottle closure till the '80s and '90s with around 95% of the market share. But it started getting badnaam (notorious) because of an inherent and hitherto expected though unaccepted defect that made screwcaps popular. The oak tree barks from which cork is made, have traces of the chemical that forms TCA - Tri- Chloro Anisole - a very small amount of which (more than 2 parts per trillion) if in contact with wine or food, results in a musty odour and the wine is said to be corked. Though the presence has been reduced to as low as 0.5 nano-gms (.5 parts per trillion) by companies like Amorim of Portugal, it is not possible to guaranty complete absence as of today.

Bark, bark, bark

Click For Large ViewBarks of oak trees that grow around the Mediterranean in the oak forests are covered under strict government controls and procedures. For instance a fresh tree has to grow for 25 years before it may be harvested (term used for removing bark from the tree). The height of the tree allowed to be cut is 150% that of the circumference. In an effort to keep the sustainability, several protocols have been defined and have to be followed by the land owners.

Corks are sustainable closures with Portugal holding 730,000 ha out of 2.2 million hA of cork oak tree land, followed by Spain. The process uses stripping the tree using an axe which does not harm trees. Of course, wherever the axe nicks the tree, that part is bruised and won’t have bark growing there in future, making it a very specialised and well-paid job.

The planks from these trees end up being used as natural cork, if their thickness so allows. Smaller pieces are used to make cork discs which are glued to the compacted granules and are in touch with the wine. Granules are glued to the less expensive corks through extrusion too. What cannot be used for any cork at all is used as fuel to burn. From an ecological balance point, cork makes a perfect choice.

The cork imperfections

Click For Large ViewThe human palate cannot notice the defect in aromas as well as flavour if the TCA present in these corks is less than 3 nano-gms (3 parts in a trillion) though some experts may sense it even when it's as low as 2 parts per trillion (many cannot pinpoint the off taste even when it is as high as 5 parts per trillion). The cork nevertheless becomes a villain since the fruit in the wine is suppressed, the whole bottle smells musty (the classic definition being wet cardboard) and the wine becomes unpleasant and undrinkable.

Alternative closures including screwcaps and synthetic corks in different varieties came into the market with this problem in mind. Although screwcaps are known to have been in use sporadically in the '70s and '80s as alternative closures, Australia and New Zealand took the lead and started to use them increasingly to the extent that over 80% of the closures are screwcaps today. Even the sparkling wine which was the exclusive preserve of corks due to the pressure build up inside the bottle, an Australian winery has recently experimented with using a screwcap. To the producers, the then rejection rate of 5%, at times going up to 8%, was not acceptable as it ruined their liquid in the bottle. Before the cork industry realized the ramifications, the world started switching to alternative closures, grabbing as much as 30% of the market share.

Our readers who have lived through the horrors of monopolistic economy would well understand the arrogant attitude of the cork producers that might have been prevalent in the '80s and '90s. Most wine producers interviewed confirm that if they complained about 3%, 4% or 5% rejection, the cork producers told them they should be happy with such a low rate of rejection and learn to live with it.

Click For Large ViewAmorim is one of the producers that seems to have sensed the situation and decided to get into action in the late '90s. They visited the producers shifting away from cork, including Australia, and started research into new processes that would result in lower cork faults. An R & D department was set up in 1999 with Dr. Miguel Ferreira Cabral, a microbiologist teaching at the university at Porto. His role was to develop new technology, processes and quality measures to bring down the rejection rates. Starting with 3 elements including TCA, his department now hands 9 elements, including areas like glue and permeability of oxygen in the cork.

The company had already started INOS II process when his team was formed in 1999. He installed the patented ROSA technology in 2004. ROSA-Rate of Optimal Steam Extraction- is a steam distillation process which, according to the company, is capable of extracting TCA from the cork material to a large extent. It was followed by further improvements and resulted in a process called ROSA Evolution in 2007, Vaporisation in 2009 and  ROSA Hard in 2010 - some patented while others modified versions of new technologies developed elsewhere. The company says that although some other producers are using their patented processes by slight modification, they don’t mind as they deem it important that the whole cork industry comes up with better quality to face the challenge from the alternative closures.

Click For Large ViewThe company also took direct charge of the bark processing  by buying the barks directly under their charge and starting a facility close to the forests in South Portugal to steam clean them in order to remove the contamination. Equipar, another manufacturing facility created at Caruche in South Portugal, making 1 billion corks a year, is the biggest cork producing factory in the world, using the latest technology. Twin Tops (cork discs that are glued to the granulated cork) are also made in these factories.

Reverse Flow

While it may be too late for the cork industry to reverse the exodus that took place during the last 10-15 years, Amorim claims to have stemmed the tide. As Carlos de Jesus, Director Marketing and Communications says, ‘we have recorded more than 8% growth during the previous two years and if all goes well, this year should also see a similar growth,’ adding that the company producing about 3.5 billion corks out of a total of the around 13 billion market, maintains a healthy share of the market.’ He is optimistic as the other senior management officials of Amorim are, that the reverse trend may be in store, after all. (Amorim is a listed company and the figures can be ascertained ).

A recent example in Australia may be the beginning of a trend in the reverse. Christian Canute, winemaker and director at the family-run Rusden Wines in Barossa Valley, decided in 2005 to close its Driftsand Grenache-Shiraz blend with screwcap. However, after four years of using screwcaps, he is reportedly shifting back to natural cork with the 2010 bottling next month.

Click For Large ViewThe sweating of wines and the reductive characters developed in screwcaps are one reason for this shift. “I wasn’t happy with how the wines bottled under screwcap had been ageing,” he says. “Our wines are handmade and bottled without fining or filtration, and under a screwcap I have noticed the wines seem to sweat – producing overly dominant reductive characters, a problem we have never had under cork.”He was thinking of using sterile filtration and adding copper to clean up the wines before bottling, but Rusden is renowned for its traditional approach to winemaking and minimal use of additives, and that is something he will not change.

Nevertheless, Canute believes that there is room for a variety of closures, just as there is room for a variety of wine styles. Interestingly, he prefers Portugal as the source and has opted for Amorim. He says reportedly, “the proof is in the pudding; TCA is so rare in our last two vintages that I am happy to open samples in front of my customers again.”

Victor Ribeiro who has been the CEO of Amorim Cork closure division since 2003, would agree with Canute. He is neither from the wine nor the cork industry. He is a manager who claims to have improved the sales from €200 million to 310 million and the profitability from around  €5 million to 30 million, by restructuring the team, closing down certain factories, getting rid of the excess staff of over 400 and generally streamlining the business.

Click For Large ViewHe has spearheaded the quality campaign he admits was started in 1998-99, before he joined the company. But the company does spend around €5 million on R & D and an investment of €7-10 million in the capital equipment every year to keep up with technology and modernization of the equipment and various processes. With the sales growth in the company business between 8-10% a year since 2010 he is happy with the position of the company. ‘No closure is perfect - cork, synthetic or screwcap. Each will have some place though the drop in synthetic corks has been significant during the last few years.’ He adds in jest, ‘Natural corks are like faithful wives who know their husbands may go astray and flirt with synthetic cork or screw caps but eventually will return home to their wives.’

The world of closures has been enjoying flings and only time will tell if it swings back to the old faithful. But, before that happens, the natural cork quality would still need continuous improvements due to the zero tolerance demand from the wine producers. Whereas they were obliged to live with 3-8% rejections a couple of decades ago, even the existing 1% or less may not be palatable to most.

Subhash Arora



Jeffrey Slater Says:

Thank you for this informative article. Full disclosure, I work for Nomacorc, the global leader in synthetic wine closures. Over 90% of the world’s wines are bottled and consumed within 1 year. Hence by definition as the second largest closure company in the world selling over 2.4 billion closures per year, a significant percentage of our products are used in wines that shorter term in nature. However, we think the issue of aging is really a more complex question based on the research we have been doing. Varietal, wine style, bottling equipment performance, level of SO2, consistent headspace, micro-ox, storage and transport conditions and many more factors can affect how well a wine will age irrespective of closure. It is our belief that the right closure can be selected but it is important to understand multiple inputs to the winemaking decisions first. Many people don’t realize it but winemaking continues even after bottling so managing oxygen post bottling is critical and we are on the cutting edge of this science. Our newest closure series, Select, provides a unique and innovative engineered approach to managing oxygen transfer rates. I would note that our products are designed with wine maker intention and preservation requirements in mind. We have products that are intended for wines that are consumed quickly. At the same time, we have products that are designed to preserve wines for extended aging. Of particular note are our latest generation offerings which are intended for wines that could experience aging in excess of 10 years. Finally, we have software called NomaSelector that can guide a winemaker to choose the right closure to meet a wine maker’s intention. By leveraging our expertise in oxygen management, we can recommend a closure that will provide the optimized oxygen transfer required based on up to 20 different inputs. More information is available at our website: including a short video about our software called NomaSelector. Thank you for the chance to share some comments and insights. Jeffrey Slater

Posted @ September 25, 2012 12:27


Christophe Fouquet (AI) Says:

We were pleased that you took the time to visit us. I really believe wine in India does still represent challenges. Marketing and regulatory issues are key, as wine should not be seen as a commodity. Culture, terroir, packaging and a story behind should be always considered on the sales arguments as this is what might attract a generation which will be more and more looking for lifestyle, innovation, feelings and eye-catching things, result of a globalized world with international travelling and global social internet networks that will lead habits and trends to move very fast. As I could see, average income is already beyond some European countries, so it should allow the Indian wine industry to leverage the value of its wines associated to powerful arguments. Cork makes part of the wine culture and you can see leading markets that are rapidly growing in both, wine consumption and the value of the wines, having cork as a preferred seal, matching consumers preferences and food styles, featuring romance, ritual, green credentials and a story behind the whole product/package. This happens for example in key markets like US and China in opposition to Australia that has followed a different way, leading to the loss of value on their wines. Best Regards. Christophe

Posted @ September 18, 2012 14:40


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