What future for the cork?

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Wine

Sabaté has this week unveiled the successful results of a trial of
a new natural closure which it claims should remove the risk of
wine taint caused by compounds in cork - good news for the vast
majority of wine drinkers who still prefer this traditional bottle
closure to more modern alternatives. But is there a long term
future for cork in the wine industry, asks Chris Jones

The new cork is treated with supercritical CO2 to extract TCA - or 2,4,6-trichloroanisole to give it its full name - the naturally occurring compound which is responsible for the mouldy, musty taste and odour of corked wine, and has been developed by Sabaté to help winemakers tackle the problem of combating wine taint at the same time as meeting the clear consumer demand for cork, rather than synthetic, closures.

The number of wine bottles affected by cork taint is difficult to assess, with figures put at anywhere between 1 per cent (a figure cited by the cork industry) and 15 per cent (a more anecdotal figure based on winemakers' own perceptions), but no matter how high the exact figure is, the problem is one which plagues wine marketers the world over.

The vast majority of the global wine-drinking public are enthusiastic amateurs or absolute beginners - in other words, they are highly unlikely to realise that corked wine is a widespread problem which can affect any product or brand. They are in fact much more likely to link it directly to the specific wine affected by the taint, making the chances of them buying that wine again extremely remote, with obvious implications for the winemaker.

The problem of wine taint has been tackled in many ways, the most obvious and widespread of which is the use of screw caps or synthetic stoppers. But while this is one way of significantly reducing the problem (although evidence suggests that TCA from sources other than cork - such as wooden barrels or even the drainage system of the winery where its made - can still contaminate wine in screw cap bottles) consumer acceptance of such closures remains mixed.

Research carried out recently in the UK suggests that while British consumers are the most accepting of a wide variety of closures, most still prefer to hear the pop of a natural cork when they open a bottle of wine.

Specialist wine industry market research group Wine Intelligence​ said that UK consumers clearly ranked cork as their favourite, with synthetic corks in second place and screw-caps a distant third, with nearly 60 per cent negative response."The distinctive 'pop' of a wine cork is still a key element of the wine drinking ritual, say consumers, and it is not one they are keen to give up,"​ Wine Intelligence's Richard Halstead told FoodandDrinkEurope.com"Some 99 per cent of respondents to the survey said they were positive or neutral about cork. By contrast, nearly six in 10 respondents said they did not like buying wine with screw caps."

Halstead continued: "Ordinary consumers are not yet willing to abandon a key element of the wine drinking ritual, despite evidence pointing to the better sealing properties of screw caps. There is a danger here that retailers and wine producers will move too fast to embrace the new technology and in doing so alienate key segments of consumers."

But this is what appears to be happening, and the concern for the pro-cork lobby is that this move will gain so much momentum that it will be impossible to stop, no matter what advances are made in cork technology.

This is because quality is playing an increasingly minor in the debate, with issues such as marketing now coming to the fore.

For example, Halstead said that many New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs now came with screw caps because they were seen as best fitting the 'fresh' image of the wines themselves, less staid than their European equivalents. The survey results suggest that this is a marketing policy which is working well: just over half of New Zealand wine drinkers thought that a screw cap on a bottle represented good value.

But in the end it will be cost which play the most important role, it seems.

"In the UK, it is the retailers which are driving the move towards synthetic closures or screw caps, and that is all down to the cost savings. With so much of the UK wine trade coming through the multiple grocers - and through their own labels - the major chains have a huge influence on brand owners,"​ said Halstead.

He said that a new survey from Wine Intelligence, due to be published soon, showed that synthetic closures were already the stopper of choice among the UK's leading wine buyers, and suggested that this, rather than consumer demand, would drive the market in the future.

The UK is by far the most dynamic wine market in Europe, and the number one export destination for most of the world's wine producing nations, so developments there are likely to be followed extremely closely all over the world, and could eventually lead to changes in the way wine is sold in countries as traditional as France or Italy.

"Wine buyers in other non-producing markets such as Scandinavia and the Low Countries are already paying a great deal of attention to what their counterparts in the UK are doing, and there is the real possibility that synthetic stoppers will become increasingly popular there too as a result,"​ said Halstead.

And once large quantities of wineries orders are for wine bottles with synthetic stoppers, the cost of running separate lines for cork and alternative closures could become a more pressing problem, especially for smaller producers, effectively obliging them to switch to 100 per cent synthetic closures or risk losing a large part of their custom.

What is interesting is that this penchant for synthetic stoppers among the retailers is not, for once, driven by concern about what their consumers want - other than, perhaps, the desire for better value for money. If supermarkets can offer a higher quality wine at a lower price simply by switching from cork to screw cap, then they will do so, as this will stimulate increased demand.

The survey results which show that cork remains the most popular closure also underline the fact most UK customers know little of the alternatives - a factor which seems likely to play a more important role in the future.

"Does the consumer really care about what the closure is on their bottle of wine?"​ asked Halstead. "Most people like cork, but they don't really know anything else. The question is whether, in the long term, the ritual of removing the cork - rather than unscrewing the cap - is important enough to them to influence which wine they buy. This might be the case, but then again, it might not."

Details of Wine Intelligence's market reports can be accessed here​.

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