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Feature: Closures – Taint misbehavin’

As the cork industry fights to claw back some of the 22% market share it has lost to screwcaps and synthetic closures, the claims and counterclaims ricochet back and forth. Fionnuala Synnott investigates

If there is one subject that is guaranteed to divide the wine industry it is bottle closures – when it comes to sealing wine, everyone has an opinion. The closures market is also one of the most dynamic areas of the wine industry, with new technologies and new products launching constantly. This is hardly surprising given how large and potentially lucrative the market is. Skalli & Rein estimate that, last year alone, a total of 19.5 billion closures were produced.

There was a time when every bottle of wine was sealed with a stopper made from natural cork. But, in the last decade, the market has been subject to an influx of alternative wine bottle closures, largely due to key decision-makers in the wine industry looking for a closure that is free of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, better-known as TCA or cork taint.

TCA is a controversial topic and, like many aspects of the closure debate, it is not yet fully understood due to a lack of objective scientific data on the subject. Champions of natural cork claim that the problem has been overstated and that cork has been blamed for taint problems that have nothing to do with the closure. They cite cases of wineries that have been tainted by TCA and blind tastings where wine experts have picked up TCA from wines bottled under synthetic corks
or screwcaps. Meanwhile, winemakers and producers of synthetic corks and screwcaps claim that as much as 5%–8% of all wines are affected by cork taint.

Whatever the exact figure may be (the jury is still out on how much wine is spoiled by TCA), it is clear that key figures in the wine industry are very concerned about natural cork’s potential to spoil a wine. Oenologists don’t want their good work to be ruined by TCA, while brand managers are concerned that a tainted bottle could put a consumer off the brand for life. In fact, the wine industry appears to be more concerned by barely perceptible levels of TCA than high levels, which are easily detectable. Instead of thinking that a wine is corked, consumers – who may not be able to identify low levels of TCA – may think that a wine isn’t good, preventing them from making a second purchase.

Belinda Kleinig, wine technical manager at UK importer Bibendum says, “You used to find wines that screamed TCA, but now the contamination is more subtle. Sometimes it only manifests itself as a dulling of the fruit in the wine. I am worried that cork companies are trying to remove the TCA in cork through steam treatment. Instead of removing it, they are only bringing the levels down to two nanograms per litre, which is still perceptible.”

Tackling TCA

Some members of the trade feel that the cork industry was slow to react to the TCA problem and became concerned only once its monopoly was threatened by the arrival of alternative closures. Oliver Hartley, sales manager at William Croxson & Son, which supplies the wine industry with all closure types, says, “The natural cork industry was very traditional and didn’t see any need to change. In Australia, some winemakers felt that they were being held to ransom by Portuguese cork providers, prompting a move to alternative closures.”

But António Amorim, president of the Portuguese cork association, the Associação Portuguesa da Cortiça (APCOR), says, “The natural cork industry didn’t communicate with the wine industry because it was busy doing its homework. The cork industry has paid a heavy penalty for this lack of communication, losing approximately 22% of the market to alternative closures. It will take time for the changes made by cork producers to filter through but I am confident we will get this market share back.”

Following initial denial of the amplitude of the problem, the cork industry is now working hard at fighting TCA. Amorim continues, “Cork performance is clearly important and taint risk must be reduced to a minimum level. We are more advanced than we were 10 years ago and have tried to tackle the critical areas of the production process.”

The cork industry has launched a twin-pronged attack on TCA. Current methods involve removing it through solvent extraction (either with steam or supercritical carbon dioxide) or using a barrier method to stop it from contaminating the wine. At the moment, Amorim uses a steam-based approach called the Rate of Optimal Steam Application (ROSA), which is applied to cork granules and discs used to manufacture technical corks. Carlos Dejesus, director of marketing and communications at Amorim, says, “Our improved method, ROSA Evolution, will be implemented in the fourth quarter of this year and will allow for even greater reduction of TCA.” This new steam technique, which can now be applied to whole natural corks, aims to reduce TCA to non-detectable levels and will be more cost-effective than the original ROSA.

Meanwhile, Oeneo uses the supercritical carbon dioxide extraction method to remove TCA (and 150 other volatile compounds) from cork in order to make its much-lauded Diam technical cork. The natural cork is broken down into a fine flour and is cleaned using the “Diamond” process. The clean cork flour is then re-moulded with microspheres and food binder into corks. Unlike natural corks, the Diam product is consistent and does not vary in density.

This technique also has the advantages of being cost-effective, environmentally-friendly and has been tried and tested in both the coffee and the perfume industries. Peter Godden, group manager at the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) and an authority on closures, says, “Cork is an amazing substance with incredible properties. To be able to break it down and reconstitute it without taint means there is a potentially great future for technical corks.”

Barrier relief
Barrier methods are an alternative way of tackling TCA. Market leader ProCork uses a fine membrane that is attached to either end of the cork, protecting the wine from the cork while allowing some oxygen transmission.

Bacchus Wine Closures has developed a different barrier method. David Taylor-McIntosh, who is responsible for technology transfer and innovation at the company, claims that the barrier performs better than uncoated cork, synthetic or screwcap closures and reduces TCA levels to 2.5 ng/l. According to Taylor, it is also cost-effective: “The Bacchus Barrier is absolutely affordable for every wine producer. A five pence cork combined with the Bacchus Barrier performs better and is cheaper than a normal six pence cork”.

Accepting alternatives
However, despite such technological advances, the cork industry still lacks a focused strategy for communicating these innovations to the outside world. Instead of informing the wine industry of how they are addressing the TCA problem, certain members of the cork trade, particularly in Spain, maintain that the TCA issue has been exaggerated by those who stand to make a profit from the demise of cork closures, notably the synthetic closure producers.

In addition, the fragmented nature of the industry does not aid communication and, as with all industries, some cork producers are better than others. Hopefully, the European Cork Federation’s quality assurance system, SYSTECODE, will put an end to this. However, the cork industry will have to work harder if it is to regain the confidence of key retailers such as Howard Winn, technologist for beers, wines and  spirits at Sainsbury’s, who says, “Some cork producers have made major improvements in reducing TCA, but it has taken them 15 years to react. In the meantime, they have spent a fortune on advertising.”

Synthetically speaking
Having faced initial scepticism and prejudice when they first came onto the market, synthetic and screwcap closures have become increasingly acceptable to both the industry and consumers. At first, synthetic closures were more readily adopted than screwcaps. Their similarity to natural corks made them popular with consumers, who enjoyed the ceremony of opening a traditional closure.

Francois-Xavier Dennis, who heads up Nomacorc’s sales and marketing in Europe and South Africa, explains, “Many retailers were not ready to switch to screwcaps. They wanted a modern closure that wouldn’t shock their consumers.” In fact, synthetics are still popular in markets such as Spain and Italy, which have been resistant to the idea of screwcaps.

Synthetics also have a commercial advantage over screwcaps as producers can use the same bottle supply and bottling line for all different wines. This is a real advantage for the small and medium sized wineries that may not be able to afford to invest in a new bottling line.

Oxygen issues
But the increasing use of alternative closures has led to their weaknesses being exposed. Synthetics have been criticised for allowing too much oxygen to penetrate the bottle and are often accused of being difficult to use. Kleinig at Bibendum says, “The balance has swung away from synthetics. People have less and less confidence in them. Oxidation
is definitely a problem. A synthetic cork is not a full seal and sometimes doesn’t even last 12 months. This said, some products are definitely better than others.”

Nowadays, the closures debate is largely focused on technical corks and screwcaps, but synthetics are still a major part of the equation. According to Skalli & Rein, 2.3 billion synthetics were used last year, while only 1.2 billion screwcaps were used, and the category has grown by 20% every year for the past decade. Godden says, “Synthetic corks have clearly moved on a lot but there is no doubt that they do facilitate more oxygen ingress than other closures. They’re pretty good for high-turnover wines that are meant to be drunk up to two or two-and-a-half years after bottling.”

The wine industry is currently divided on the issue of oxygen transmission and how much oxygen permeability is required from a closure in order to be able to age a wine successfully. Simon Waller, vice president of global sales, at Supreme Corq says, “The topic is still not sufficiently well understood. We can tell you how permeable our closure is but it is down to the wine industry to tell us how much permeability is acceptable.” Meanwhile, Dennis  at Nomacorc thinks that synthetics are in a good position to take advantage of this issue: “Synthetics have the advantage in the oxygen transmission debate as it is easy to control their permeability.”

New technology is also being applied by synthetic cork producers. Waller says, “Our newest closure is state-of-the-art. But we are not stopping there. It won’t be long until we are level with screwcaps when it comes to the oxidation issue.”

Turn of the screw

There is no doubt that the screwcap is the closure of the moment. Screwcaps are now the fastest-growing closure category and have grown from 0% market share to 6.3% in the past six years. Screwcaps have found acceptance in markets such as Australia, where 309m were used last year, New Zealand, where 72% of all wine is under screwcap, and the UK (largely because of an influx of Australian wine into the market).

At retailer Sainsbury’s, 60% of own-brand wine is sealed with a screwcap. Some major producers are also firmly behind screwcaps. Michel Laroche bottles all its wines under screwcap while Torres and Fetzer have both moved their whites and rosés to screwcap. This growth can be attributed in part to the closure’s ease of use and the fact that it does not “scalp” the wine’s flavours as cork or synthetic closures are alleged to.

But screwcaps have also come under fire of late. It seems that being a completely hermetic seal can be a weakness after all and screwcaps have recently been criticised for their reductive qualities. Their association with entry-level wine has also put some people off making the switch to screwcaps.

Despite these problems, screwcaps are particularly favoured by the on-trade. Matt Wilkin, London on-trade sales executive for Genesis Wines, says, “Most members of the on-trade prefer to use screwcaps. We haven’t had that many problems with reduction and problems only seem to arise when the seal has been damaged during transportation. I don’t understand why more short-shelf life wine is not bottled under screwcap”.

Crucially, neither synthetic corks nor screwcaps are commonly used for wine that is meant for cellaring. Instead, they are geared towards high-turnover wine that is meant to be consumed shortly after bottling. But as this represents 80% of the market, providers of alternative closures do not appear to be unduly concerned by this particular issue.

Future improvements
The current debate surrounding different types of closures can only be good for the wine industry as closure providers strive to outdo one another and produce better quality products. George Thompson, key account director at United Closures & Plastics, says, “The debate has progressed from head-to-head competition to problem solving, which is much healthier for the industry.”

Consumer perception, post-bottling chemistry issues and bottling wine issues are vital elements of the debate. Yet, only a minority of consumers take closure type into consideration when choosing what wine to purchase. Thompson says, “The majority of consumers are not aware of the issues surrounding existing closures.”

However, retailer/producer perception of consumer preference is still shaping the closures market. According to Amorim, one of the main advantages of using cork is that the retailer can charge more for a wine bottled under cork because consumers associate the closure with quality wine. He explains, “A quality symbol is important at a time when people are trying to avoid having a cheap image and are trying to differentiate themselves from competitors.”

Three of a kind
It seems likely that all three types of closure – technical corks, synthetic and screwcap closures – are here to stay, at least until objective scientific data about their performance is available. Dean Bannister, commercial manager at Oeneo says, “Nowadays, there is no reason to have TCA in closures. Depending on factors such as price point, perceived consumer preference and the style of the wine, producers can choose which closure works best for them. I can see all three options growing at the expense of traditional natural cork.”

Neocork’s Coleman agrees. “I think we’ll see continued improvement across the board and wineries will continue to realise there is no ‘one’ silver bullet and that different types of wines, brands and markets will be best suited with different types of closures,” he says.

Godden of the AWRI expects to see more designer closures in the next five years, as producers begin to match the closure to the wine. He explains, “What we can do with closures nowadays is very exciting. How the closures industry progresses is down to wine producers. It depends whether they are prepared to make the necessary investment and whether suppliers are prepared to produce variants of their closures.”

Coleman predicts consolidation in the closure industry as manufacturing companies begin to realise that they are not just in the natural cork, synthetic cork or screwcap industry, but in the “closure” industry. He adds, “We’re already seeing this on the distributor level and its only a matter of time before we see it on the corporate level.” 

© db August 2006

The sustainability argument

Many cork producers are now championing the environmental argument for using cork. It is hard to tell whether this is driven by real environmental concern or the realisation that in an age when many consumers choose to buy organic food and look for full food traceability, it is only a matter of time before consumers start to question what they are drinking and how it is packaged.

Belinda Kleinig, wine technical manager for Bibendum, says, “The environmental angle is definitely the next logical step. Even in the past six months we have noticed an increase in environmental awareness among consumers. The industry has reacted by trying to use sustainable glass and, logically, closures will follow. At the moment, there is nobody working to recycle cork, which I feel weakens the cause of the cork industry.”

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) appeared at the LIWSF for the first time this year in order to inform the wine industry of its findings on the environmental values and economic impact of using cork wine closures. Its Corkscrewed? report has been criticised by some for its lack of objectivity amid accusations that the organisation has accepted funding from the cork industry. However, the report is fully independent and is part of a wider programme that looks to protect the natural wealth of cork oak landscapes by influencing the policies, practices and markets that affect them.

Obviously, it is not down to the WWF to stop the decline in market demand for cork closures. The cork industry needs to communicate its environmental concerns in a business language that will appeal to those working in the wine industry, perhaps by focusing on consumers’ increasing interest in all things green.

But for some, the environmental argument is not the point. Matt Wilkin, London on-trade sales executive at Genesis Wines says,”The cork industry has got its PR wrong. Instead of focusing on the environment it should work at producing quality cork.” Oliver Hartley at William Croxson & Son agrees, “The cork forests are a wonderful natural resource, but there are not many industries that would put up with a product that has a 2% failure rate. Everyone is an environmentalist until they open a bottle of corked wine.“

© db August 2006

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