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Closure encounters: What’s driving the wine stopper market?

While screwcaps’ hold on the market seems to be loosening, new developments in natural cork, Diam and synthetics mean that wine producers are spoilt for choice when it comes to stoppering power. Jamie Goode examines the state of the market.

A few years ago, the onward march of screwcaps as the dominant wine bottle closure seemed unstoppable. Most discussions about closures focused on performance, and screwcaps gave a consistent performance at a low price.

It just seemed that it would be a matter of time before they would become the most widely used wine-bottle closure, especially when the two leading screwcap manufacturers both launched new liners that offered different levels of oxygen transmission, giving winemakers the control that previously had only been possible with in-neck (or inner seal) closures. But things are changing. Inner-seal closures – cork, technical corks and newgeneration synthetics – are fighting back.

People are realising that there is more to closures than simply performance, and significant markets have decided that they don’t really like screwcaps all that much, even though they are convenient and do a good job.

Even in countries that were almost exclusively screwcap, there’s been a small shift back towards in-neck closures such as Diam or natural cork.


Carlos de Jesus of Amorim has a positive outlook about cork’s future. “It is very important we tell the difference between consumer acceptance and consumer preference, because these are two very different things,” he emphasises. “We accept a lot of things in life without preferring them – for example, the car I drive is not necessarily the car I have preference for.”

His point is that surveys that look at consumer acceptance of closures could give a misleading picture. Could it be that many consumers accept screwcaps, without preferring them? “Acceptance and preference are different at all price points, but the higher you go in price the more important the difference becomes. But even at the lower price points, preference still matters,” says de Jesus.

He thinks that we’ve focused on performance while ignoring some of the most important things about wine bottle closures: the nature of the experience. “All the aspects of opening a bottle of wine are a lot more important than we realise,” says de Jesus.

“In our consumer research for Helix we began to identify that these aspects of opening a bottle are very important. Different stoppers provide different levels of engagement. A cork can be an impressive piece of nature.”

He continues: “We need to understand more about the importance of the sound of the bottle being opened.

I imagine that if you polled people around the world, the sound of a bottle being opened would be in their top 10 favourite sounds. It’s universally recognised. That pop is always associated with the happy moment of consumption. “Other industries spend hundreds of millions of dollars to create that happy moment.

There’s so much cultural interest and heritage.” De Jesus also thinks it’s wrong to brand some markets as anti-cork, even if screwcaps are the dominant closure. “Even in screwcap-friendly markets such as the UK, Germany and Australia, on the occasions when people are willing to spend more the preference for cork still works,” he says.

“It’s not possible to say ‘this market doesn’t accept cork’. Having said that, two of the most exciting markets for anyone in the world exporting wine today are the US and China.

The numbers there are stronger in very much favouring cork.” He cites a May 2017 study in China, based on Nielsen data from hypermarkets in 24 Chinese cities. This researched the 100 best-selling wines in terms of revenues, and then looked at the closures used.

Of this number, 95% were sealed with cork, and the cork-sealed wines sold for an average price of 138 RMB (£16), while the wines with other closures sold at a 33% lower average price of 104 RMB – 65% of these wines were Chinese and 35% were imported. All but one were red.


Wine Intelligence data on the Chinese market (Closures Global Survey 2017) shows that natural cork is favoured, but screwcaps are now accepted by more than one-third of drinkers of imported wine. For inexpensive wines (less than 150 RMB), natural cork has 71% acceptance, while synthetics have 62% and screwcaps 47%.

For wines costing more than 250 RMB, the figures are 80% for cork, 48% for synthetic and 31% for screwcap.

Screwcaps are seen as acceptable for informal occasions, but for celebrations, dinner parties and gifting, natural cork is by far the most preferred closure. In the UK, when asked to agree with the statement ‘I like buying wine with this closure,’ 40% of people liked screwcaps and 41% of people liked corks, and only 16% of people liked synthetics. This data has been stable over the past four years.

The only significant change over this period is that now 20% say they don’t like synthetics, up from 15% in 2013 and 2015. By way of comparison, 7% don’t like screwcap and 9% don’t like cork. In Germany, which is seen as a screwcap-friendly country, 27% of people polled like screwcaps (going up) while 60% like natural cork (going down).

Meanwhile, 27% of people don’t like screwcaps (going down) and 6% of people don’t like cork. The US is seen as a screwcap-averse market. Here, 31% like screwcaps (going up) and 22% dislike them (going down); 27% like synthetics, while 15% dislike them (up from 12% in 2014), and 62% like natural cork (a stable figure). Australia is a strong screwcap country, but a surprising number of people there still like natural cork – 45% like screwcap (going down) while 37% like natural cork (also going down).

The number disliking each is stable at 7% and 10% respectively. And an increasing number of people don’t really mind about the closure. But it’s not necessarily the consumer opinions that are driving closure choice.

It is winemakers who make the call, and their choice may well be based on their perceptions of the target market. In Australia, cork is getting a second chance, which Carlos de Jesus thinks is partly because of the importance of the Chinese market for premium Australian wine, and their preference for cork.

Diam is also doing well in traditionally screwcapfavouring markets such as Australia, Austria and Switzerland, with good sales volumes. “This was impossible to do three or four years ago,” says Diam’s sales director, Bruno de Saizieu. He believes that as well as having an eye on the Chinese market, some Australian producers are moving to inner-seal closures for marketing reasons.

“On wines at a certain level, if you want to be different you move from screwcap.”


Bruno de Saizieu is upbeat about how well these taint-free microagglomerate technical corks are performing. “People are putting Diam on more and more toplevel wines,” he says, adding, “40% of Grand Cru Burgundy is now under Diam. When you have top wines under Diam, it’s easier to convince other people to go there.” Last year, the company sold 1.5 billion closures, with sales up by 15% so far this year.

“Things are going fast and we are thinking of a new supercritical plant.” The firm’s third factory will be full in the next two years (it already has two in Spain and one in France).

A new facility will be a big investment, costing around €30 million (£27m).


Synthetic corks are struggling in the market, but there are some signs of hope. “Synthetics are going down, and this trend will increase,” says Diam’s de Saizieu. “People in the US are leaving plastic to go to cork or screwcap.” He doesn’t think they have much of a future.

“I’m convinced that in the end we will have some natural cork, microagglomerates will have a big part of the market, and then the rest will be screwcaps. Agglomerates, colmated corks and synthetics will go down very fast.”


But this isn’t a view shared by Vinventions CEO Heino Freudenberg.

In 2015 the company bought leading synthetic cork manufacturer Nomacorc, and launched itself as a supplier of a various closure types. “We talked to our customers and they gave feedback that they are tired of one-product companies trying to convince them that their one product is the best thing since sliced bread,” says Freudenberg.

His view is that a large winery should be using several types of closures, bearing in mind the wine style and the market.

While there exist distributors who sell several closure types, they lack the technical depth of a company such as Vinventions, which wants to be the most innovative of all closure suppliers.

One of its main tasks is to reverse the sliding sales of oil-based synthetic closures. While it still sells two billion closures annually, Vinventions’ customers have demanded better performance in terms of longevity, a nicer design, and sustainability.

In 2013 it announced a new line of synthetics, Select Bio, with a proportion of the polymer used derived from plants (sugar cane) rather than oil.

This is the Nomacorc Green Line, and now there is a higher-end line of these PlantCorc closures that is 100% plantbased, has a performance guarantee (up to 25 years for the Nomacoc Reserva), and a negative carbon footprint. Recent adopters include prestige domains Ramonet, JL Chave, Henri Boillot and Faiveley, wineries that Freudenberg admits would never use traditional oilbased synthetics.

The entry level PlantCorcs still have a proportion of oil-derived polymers in them. The performance is the same for the polymers whether they are plant or oil derived. “Oil based synthetics are declining,” admits Freudenberg, “but PlantCorc is the fastest-growing closure this year, with 800 million units.

This compares with screwcaps, which grew by 700 million units.” The overall market for closures is flat, and the biggest losers this year were agglomerates. He says that while customers are moving away from oilbased synthetics, the growth in PlantCorcs means that overall brand Nomacorc is seeing net growth.

As well as Nomacorc, Vinventions also sells natural cork (the Ohlinger Selektion) and the elegant-looking glass closure VinoLok.

The company has studied the market and has identified four dimensions of wine preference:
• wine-preservation performance – faultfree, controlled oxygen management, consistency and supply chain robustness;
• lifestyle – celebratory effects, convenience, differentiation in the market and sensory attractiveness;
• sustainability – biodegradability or recyclability, carbon footprint and compliance;
• cost effectiveness – cost-efficient, but bear in mind the total cost includes product failure. It follows that with each user, preferences will be different depending on how highly the user rates these attributes.

For someone with low hand strength, for example, a screwcap might be much more convenient than grappling with a corkscrew. For a millennial, sustainability might be a huge preference. Vinventions is bringing to market a new product, a microagglomerate called Sübr.

This is described as a next-generation microagglomerate that is 60% natural cork, cleaned so that any TCA present is below 0.5 ng/litre (below perception threshold).

This cork is combined with a special binder that is biodegradable and based on vegetable sugar. It will be a direct competitor for Diam, with two levels of oxygen transmission. The second generation will be more of an entry-level product based on the same technology.

Diam has responded to criticism that its product is not natural enough (as well as taint-free cork it contains acrylate microspheres and polyurethane glue) by introducing Origine, which has beeswax microparticles and 100%-vegetable polyols as a binding agent.

It performs in the same way as the regular Diam but costs a little more.


“The closure is the last enological decision of the winemaker,” says Diam’s de Saizieu.

‘In years to come we will see the same wine bottled with different Diams according to the market.” The idea is that by offering closures with different oxygen-transmission levels, Diam can allow winemakers to choose the closure so that the wine has different characteristics by the time it reaches the customer, and with knowledge of market preferences, this can be an active winemaking choice. “It’s a big step compared with 10 years ago.

We are at the beginning of a new age of the cork,” says de Saizieu. And Vinventions’ Freudenberg says: “The fundamental idea is that we walk away from the notion that there is one best closure. It depends on the wine and the user, which leads us to a situation where a forward-thinking winery will use all of the brands Vinventions offers.”

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