Amorim, the world’s largest cork producer, is spearheading a variety of new approaches to ensure that cork remains the best way to seal a bottle of wine.
Amorim has invested over €200 million into quality improvements for cork over the past 15 years
AS WIDELY used 21st century materials go, few products are more natural than cork. Harvested manually with the help of nothing other than a hand axe, cork comes from the bark of the Quercus suber, or cork oak – a slow-growing tree found within the entirely untreated, native forests of southern Portugal and elsewhere in the Iberian Peninsula.
But that doesn’t mean that the cork industry is devoid of modern-day technology. In fact, the world’s biggest cork producer, Amorim, is at the forefront of cork innovation, spearheading a wide range of new approaches in the handling of this completely natural product, whether that concerns its use as a building material, an art form, or, for the sake of the drinks trade, a bottle closure.
For the latter use, much of these breakthroughs concern quality assurance measures, but they are also motivated by the need for greater convenience, as well as better science in the wine industry today – particularly when it comes to the complex changes taking place as a fine wine matures within the bottle.
Such pioneering approaches from Amorim are the result of company chairman Antonio Amorim’s decision to fund ceaseless research into ensuring that cork remains the best way to seal a bottle of wine. Indeed, he says that the cork producer must never stop innovating because it is embroiled in a constant battle for market share with other closure manufacturers.
So, despite many game-changing cork-based developments from Amorim in the past few years, he says: “This is not a finished fight, they are pushing us and we are pushing back… we need to keep fighting.” To better understand the key advancements from the world’s largest cork producer, we have outlined Amorim’s latest developments in three parts, listed under the headings of convenience, quality assurance, and maturation.
If there was one ongoing criticism of cork from screwcap manufacturers, it concerned the convenience factor: removing a natural cork stopper from a still wine requires a corkscrew.
However, in 2013, Amorim became the first cork company to solve this issue, creating Helix, a twistable and resealable cork stopper that does away with the corkscrew. Covered by three patents, the design features a helix-shaped groove cut into the bottle, which works with the cork’s natural elasticity to allow consumers to open the bottle with a simple twisting motion.
According to the company, the design has displayed “no statistically sensory difference” from a standard cork closure after 26 months storage. Helix has also been tested satisfactorily in an accelerated aging process, which saw bottles stored horizontally for 30 days at a temperature of 35°C. “This has the potential to be a game changer for the wine industry,” said Carlos de Jesus, marketing and communication manager for Amorim, as he introduced the product at Vinexpo Bordeaux in June 2013.
So far, 24 wine brands across target markets France, Spain, Italy and Portugal have been adapted for the closure. Among the producers to adopt Helix are Tuscany’s Castellani, which sells its organic wine Toscano Santa Lucia in the US through Trader Joe’s; Alentejo winery Ervideira, which is using the closure for two of its wines; and France’s Val d’Orbieu, which has switched to Helix for its Cuvée Mythique.
Helix: a twistable and resealable cork stopper that does away with the corkscrew
It is unfortunate for a reputable cork producer like Amorim that any wine displaying off-flavours is dubbed ‘corked’, particularly as the trade is now fully aware that the sources of a wide range of wine spoilage compounds are myriad, and include the vineyard and winery.
Nevertheless, the persistence of such a term has spurred Amorim to invest over €200 million into quality improvements for cork stopper production over the past 15 years, from its patented steam cleaning technology called ROSA to its breakthrough this year: NDTech. Standing for Non-Detectable, the advent of NDTech in March made Amorim the first closure producer to deliver natural corks with a non-detectable TCA guarantee, meaning that if there is any trace of TCA in the cork, it is below the detection threshold of 0.5 nanograms/litre. Like Helix, this new development was described as yet another “game changer”, by the company’s Chairman, Antonio Amorim, when speaking to the drinks business in June this year.
Following a €10 million investment in stopper-screening technology, Amorim currently has the capacity to screen up to 50 million corks annually, but Antonio told db that the demand for the new guarantee means that he could already sell five times that number, and in the long term, Antonio stated he wanted every natural cork produced by Amorim to come with a nondetectable TCA guarantee.
“One day I need to get the whole of our natural cork production guaranteed, that is our ambition,” he said, adding, “We will get there, it is just a question of scaling up, although some of our customers are saying that they don’t need NDtech, because they have no quality issues.”
NDtech uses gas chromatography to screen each natural cork for TCA. Currently, the patented machines can scan each cork in 20 seconds, which is significantly less than the 14 minutes for standard gas chromatography technology. NDtech is being used alongside Amorim’s existing preventive, curative and quality control measures.
While much of Amorim’s developments have centred on removing the negatives of cork, the company’s latest research concerns the positives.
As a result, Amorim is now able to show that cork may benefit the ageing of wine through the release of phenolics and volatiles from the structure of the natural closure. In February last year, Dr. Miguel Cabral, who is director of R&D at Amorim, said that cork will release phenolic compounds in a linear way that react with the wine to form new compounds.
So far, Cabral has identified 40 different extractible compounds in a natural cork, which, he said, are likely to be beneficial to the ageing of wine. sponsored profile “A cork in a bottle will release slow amounts of compounds into a wine that will react with the wine and produce complex compounds that probably have a role in colour stabilisation and reducing bitterness and other roles we don’t yet know about,” he explained. Continuing he said: “You put wine in a barrel because you want these phenolics, and when you put wine in a bottle, it does receive some phenolics from the cork – data collected over 36 months shows that the cork will release a small amount of phenolics, and this is a linear release.”
Notably, Cabral said that these corkderived phenolics “allow for a balanced wine ageing”, which, he said, was in contrast to other closures, commenting that “synthetic closures accelerate ageing”, while the almost hermetic seal formed by a Saratin screwcap, which is tin-lined, “accelerates a reductive wine ageing” – referring to the production of volatile sulphur compounds that, it is believed, are formed as a wine ages in bottle without sufficient oxygen.
In the future, Cabral said that winemakers might be able to select an Amorim natural cork closure with a specific concentration of phenolics to positively influence a wine’s development in the bottle.