Put a Cork In It

The story behind cork and other alternative closures


Alternative closures were all the rage in the 1990s and that has been a real challenge for the cork industry, which saw its dominance of the sector diminish considerably thanks to competitive closures such as screwcaps, glass closures, synthetic corks and cork composites. However, that trend seems to be turning around and the cork industry is feeling almost giddy.

No one could be more pleased than Antonio Amorium, President and CEO of Corticeira Amorim. The 43-year-old manager heads his family’s company, which is the world leader in cork production and has been for the past 150 years. The firm has a 70% market share and sales of 450 million euro in 103 countries. Still, they don’t rest on their laurels and Amorim spends five million euro a year on research and development. Alone, the firm accounts for 3% of Portugal’s export sales.

Photo courtesy hey mr glen via Flickr/CC

 “We took the competition very seriously and have heavily invested in R&D to find new technologies and new techniques. We have been able to regain our position vis-a-vis plastics because they have revealed themselves to be unreliable. They are fragile, prone to oxidation and hard to pull out of the bottle,” said Antonio Amorim, President and CEO of Corticeira Amorim.
The company saw its 2010 profits, especially in the cork stoppers business unit, rise 13% to 42 million euro in consolidated sales. The cork stoppers accounted for around 30 million euro of that amount. Spain, France and Italy also showed increases of between 10%-23% while new world countries such as Chile, Australia and the US recorded an increase of 13%-20% in cork sales.

“The first signs of the crisis were in 2008-2009, but we took the necessary steps to be in a good position. In fact, we had our best performance in 2010. I am still cautious but with more optimism,” Amorim added.
Annual cork production is 300,000 tons and takes place in the Mediterranean basin. Some 52.5% of the total is grown in Portugal while another 29.5% grows in Spain and 5.5% in Italy. The rest grows in Algeria (5.2%), Morocco (3.7%), Tunisia (2.5%) and France (1.1%).

Italy is the third most important producer of cork in the world. Of the 2.2 million hectares of cork forests, some 225,000 of them are in Italy, 90% of which are in Sardegna and the other 10% in Sicily, Calabria, Lazio, Tuscany and Campagna. This amount equals one and a half million corks. In fact, the wine industry is without a doubt the largest client of the cork industry and uses 70% of Italy’s total cork production.

While some countries have completely adapted to alternative closures such as Austria and Australia, even on premium wines, the more traditional markets such as Italy, France, Portugal and even to some extent, the United States, still feel that for a prestigious bottle of wine, you must have a cork. The other closures are just not considered to be of the same level. Wines that have cork stoppers are also priced higher. In fact, the use of screw caps is declining because the wines are often considered of lower quality.

In addition to the prestigious view of corks over other types of closures, this is not the only reason that cork has come back into fashion. One of the most important reasons is that many people are now looking at the environmental aspects of using cork and the place of cork trees in the world’s ecosystem. Cork is a 100% biodigradeable and recycleable product. It also helps to contain CO2. Every year, cork forests absorb some 10 million tons of CO2. Additionally, cork forests are often home to a wide variety animals.

Amorim is not the only happy member of the cork industry. The Portuguese Cork Association, APCOR, the cork consortium which has been active for more than 55 years, is also pleased that the market has begun to take a second look at cork closures. APCOR represents producers of 80% of the world’s cork industry.

In any event, before a new cork forest is mature, 20-25 years must go by. Cork trees can live to be 150 years old, but they can only be harvested every nine years. As if that weren’t enough to make cork a prestigious item, in order to be a good quality cork, around 27 years must go by since the first two cork harvests, nine years apart aren’t considered up to snuff. The third harvest yields corks that are considered to be of the right quality to be used with any prestigious wine. The cork industry is therefore one that calls for patience, longevity in terms of your outlook and time. No wonder there is so much concentration.

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: define79
    921750 14

    It seems a good cork ages the same as a good wine!Great article.

    Aug 25, 2011 at 2:37 PM

  • Snooth User: rosebrien
    79281 34

    Glad to see those darn sybthetic closures are hopefully waning in popularity - I hate them! That being said, I prefer the screwcaps - better quality, better durability, and I don't have to have anything on hand to open the bottle - by far the best.

    Aug 25, 2011 at 2:46 PM

  • @define79 that's exactly right. Thanks for commenting!!

    @rosebrien I agree of the alternative closures, screwcaps are the best of the lot. Ease is one of their positive qualities. Thanks for commenting!!!

    Aug 25, 2011 at 3:41 PM

  • Snooth User: remaht
    563027 176

    The article does not really address the question of why cork may be better-(if it is).-Are there any studies that would document that rather than the "opinion" that a prestigious wine needs a cork. The article does not mention the oft quoted 10% number of wines spoiled by a bad cork.

    Aug 25, 2011 at 4:30 PM

  • What a "beat up" of an article- it is just free publicity for the cork producers.
    Yes their sales & profits are up BUT where are they compared to 5 years ago when screwcaps were just taking off?
    What have they done to get rid of TCA (cork taint) which ruins around 1 in 10 bottles of wine? I recently opened a 1990 Chateau Latour to celebrate my son's 21 st birthday & it was corked. The bottle cost me $250 on release and today would have cost wel over $1,000 but it was undrinkable. yay for cork!!!
    Screwcaps are the latest development in closure technology, just like corks replaced the oil on top of the amphora centuries ago, screwcaps with their superior seal are replacing corks to the joy of people who are more interested in what their wine tastes like than the "showmanship" of poping a cork- (which isnt much fun if the cork on an older bottle of wine crumbles & falls apart)
    The bleatings from the cork industry over the las few years are remeniscent of:
    Piano producers when radio came along
    Cart makers when the automobile came along
    i.e. dinosaurs waiting for extinction.
    Have a great day and enjoy a good screwcap sealed wine

    Aug 25, 2011 at 5:03 PM

  • Well I disagree but I'm glad to see the article has sparked some debate. That's what it's supposed to do. In any event, perhaps your storage wasn't optimal. I guess you both missed the aspect of "biodegradable" but then again, that's what makes horse racing. Thanks for your insights.

    Aug 25, 2011 at 5:53 PM

  • Snooth User: TedFrench
    697859 11

    I’m not a rich man and opening a bottle of wine, inexpensive or expensive is an event in my home. Using a twist off cap, is like opening a soda bottle. Not the same.

    Aug 25, 2011 at 6:19 PM

  • hi Susanah- storage conditions have no impact on TCA only on oxidation, apart from which my cellar sits @ 15C all year roundand the wine was sitting in there from release.
    Screwcaps are 100% recyclable along with the glass bottle they come with. how many years does a cork take to breakdown at the rubbish dump?

    Hi Ted- so you would rather have the "event" and then find that the wine is undrinkable than forego the "pop" and know that every bottle of wine you twist open will be drinkable? Good luck to you. I buy wine to drink and know that the screwcapped bottle I buy today will be drinkable tonight and into the future whenever i choose to open it.

    Aug 25, 2011 at 7:20 PM

  • I agree with 'Dan the Wine Man'! In fact, I thought it was interesting that I just read an article from The Wandering Wine Girl earlier this week that highlighted the benefits of screw caps. Take a look if you want a fun read on the opposite side of the debate - http://www.wanderingwinegirl.com

    Aug 25, 2011 at 9:17 PM

  • Susannah, interesting discussion about wine and closures. I'd like to shed some light on this conversation with some facts. In the interest of full disclosure, I work for Nomacorc - the leading global supplier of synthetic closures.

    It's important to note that not all synthetics are the same.

    That is why Nomacorc has been so successful where other synthetic closure providers have failed. We sell 2 billion closures out of a market of about 18 billion closures. Our patented co-extruded technology ensures superior closure performance compared to alternative processes such as injection molding (as evidenced by the recent exit of Supremecorq from the closure market). Over our 11-year history, we have invested millions of dollars in research to help the wine industry better understand the significance of oxygen management to wine development and preservation.

    Nomacorc closes 40% of all wine made in the U.S., 25% of the wine in Germany and roughly 20% in France. With sales increasing year over year and growing at double digit rates, we clearly are providing a quality product that consistently protects wine from faults such as cork taint, oxidation and reduction. Our research shows that consumers care about good wine, not closures.

    Cork taint remains a huge problem. The results from wine tastings like the IWC in London (typically 14,000 bottles) illustrate that over the last 6 years, on average, 6% of wines submitted for evaluation are considered faulty. Of those wines closed under bark-based closures roughly 3% exhibited cork taint. It is fair to assume this is a best case scenario given the importance of this competition and hence the extra measures taken by participants to ensure their wines are of the highest possible quality. With over 12 billion bark-based closures sold globally in 2010 and a conservative estimated 3% cork taint rate that means that nearly 1 million bottles of wine are ruined every day by traditional cork based closures. What other industry do you know that accepts that kind of failure rate?

    In the last few years we have worked with companies like Terracycle in the US to collect closures at wine retailers and they 'upcycle' the products into new products like cork boards, trivits and fencing. 60% of our product is made of air and the material we use is RIC #4 recyclabe LDPE.

    We are not perfect but we strive to continuously improve our use of materials and reduce our energy consumption.

    Thanks for giving me a chance to comment on this important topic. For more information on Nomacorc and to watch a brief video of how we make our corcs, please visit our website at nomacorc.com

    Jeffrey Slater

    Aug 26, 2011 at 9:24 AM

  • Snooth User: drjrridley
    784435 19

    I really love the process of uncorking a fine bottle of wine. The process itself helps elevate the enjoyment. Glad to see the "real cork" will still be available.

    Aug 26, 2011 at 9:32 AM

  • Snooth User: Lamebear
    701439 22

    This article tells me nothing in terms of what I want to know about cork vs. other methods of sealing wine. What does cork do in its long term reactions with wine? It certainly affects the wine (e.g., "corked" wines) & by absorbing the liquid if swells to form a tighter seal than plastic could accomplish. But I already know this stuff. Are there superior & inferior types of cork? How does it stack up against screw tops? Are some wines better off without a cork stopper? Which ones?

    The article instead is mainly a collection of statistics. I don't care.

    Aug 26, 2011 at 3:26 PM

  • The situation re Cork Taint has improved dramatically recently, and it is true that Almorim has done a lot of work to remove the problem at source, largely be removing chlorine from the manufacturing process. Corks can however still become contaminated by T.C.A. in transit or even at the winery. Then again, a bag of Bentonite can easily become contaminated by T.C.A. too and when used on a tank of wine, the wine will all then become "corked". Barrels and indeed whole wineries have been contaminated and yet wineries still splash around chlorinated water, use chlorine-based products and allow wood treated with preservatives on site.

    On corks, I am neutral. In the old days, (80s & 90s) we reckoned that we lost about 1 bottle in 9, but recently we opened 300 bottles of Champagne with no loss. I like Stelvin screw caps for wines that you want to be fresh and fruity. Plastic corks are just an abomination.

    Tim Clarke (http://www.winetours.co.uk)

    Sep 26, 2011 at 11:20 AM

  • nnnn

    May 03, 2012 at 3:35 AM

  • awesome

    Sep 24, 2013 at 9:23 AM

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