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Corx not dead! Or the challenges facing the cork industry

Cork’s not dead! Although symbolically buried in New York in 2002, a recent invitation by Amorim to visit Portugal’s cork forests and production facilities, gave me the opportunity to find the cork industry more alive than ever.

“The decline of the image of cork as a closure for wine bottles struck the cork industry very hard in the late nineties, mainly due to problems with TCA (2,4,6 Trichloroanisole, the main molecule responsible for corky taste). But it also had a positive side, by forcing us to reconsider our production process to improve the quality of our products”, explains Miguel Ferreira Cabral, head of Amorims research department.

Besides amelioration of the TCA extraction process, several preventive measures were taken to lower the risks for contamination: The harvested cork planks are no longer stored in the forest, the edges that were in contact with the soil are cut off and excluded from cork stopper production. Tests of cork batches are done at every production stage: Visual sorting both by men and computers, sensory analysis, and up to 1350 daily analyses by gas chromatography.

“For us, the TCA problem is solved, but not eradicated”, affirms Miguel Ferreira Cabral. One of the challenges is indeed not only to guarantee statistically TCA free batches of cork, but to extend this level of guarantee to every single cork leaving the factory.
A challenge not only for the leading producers but also for the entire industry, as every bad cork on a wine bottle will do a lot of damage to the reputation of all of them. According to Victor Ribeiro, CEO of Amorim, it’s the only way of making consumers aware of the “new quality” of natural cork stoppers.

“Only if cork values wine, consumers will value cork.”

But there might be more to discover. In contrast to what is commonly admitted, recent research has shown that oxygen does not pass through natural cork. But it goes through plastic stoppers and oxidation of wine is the major problem related to these “alternatives”. Besides this, plastic is not necessarily free of taste and smell, either. Thus, natural cork may produce closures that prevent wine from oxidation. And so do screw caps, but all wine makers know they may induce strong reduction in wines, which may lower the pleasure of drinking them. The differences in the evolution of wines bottled by screw caps and natural cork therefore may not just be related to oxygen. Phenolics, similar to those found in oak wood and grapes, are known to diffuse continually from natural cork into the wine. Maybe this is the key to understand how cork helps wines to age the way we like?

“Cork needs wine, “ says Carlos de Jesus, Director of marketing and communication, “and we are convinced that wine also needs cork.”

Besides the importance of cork forests for the wine world, the upkeeping and the survival of cork forests might also be of high ecological interest. Considered as one of the “hot spots” of biodiversity world wide, capturing up to 14 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, cork forests retain water, protect against erosion and build the largest, or may even be the only barrier against desertification of the Mediterranean area. They also prevent “social erosion” by maintaining economic activity in rural regions.

Considering all this, cork probably should better never be buried again…

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