Cork maker’s tug at our hearts won’t wash

Cork producer Amorim’s new, emotional appeal for us to come back to cork is unlikely to wash with consumers or the wine industry. It’s like the abusive partner seeking one more chance

Be prepared to have your heartstrings tugged by Amorim, Portugal’s leading cork producer. On 6 August they launched a campaign spruiking the virtues of corks over screw caps.

Amorim’s website (www.amorim.com) says the Australian campaign is “to promote the environmental qualities of cork oak forests and natural cork products…Rolled out under the banner ‘Save Miguel’ the campaign is designed to inform consumers of the social, environmental and economic benefits of using cork”.

Amorim’s Australian press release claims that cork can play “an important supportive role” in the wine industry’s “greater emphasis on environmental sustainability”.  It also claims that “a decline in cork manufacturing – which could result from an increase in the use of alternative wine closures – would jeopardise the future of cork forests and lead to a loss of habitat and increase emissions of CO2”.

These cork oak forests of the Mediterranean basin, says the press release, “help offset a massive 10 million tonnes of CO2 every year”. Further, Amorim estimates that more than 100,000 people depend on the Mediterranean cork industry and that the forests prevent soil degradation and support biodiversity.

See where this is going? – if Australians continue to choose alternative closures over cork, we’ll contribute to global warming, soil degradation on a vast scale, the extinction of biodiversity and to mass unemployment across the Mediterranean basin. Amazing for a country that drinks less than two per cent of the world’s wine.

But it’s behind the campaign’s ‘Save Miguel’ banner that Amorim cuts to the chase. Forget the ‘alternative closures’ mentioned in the press release. The target is clearly aluminium screw caps – and a hint of panic at how successful they’ve been.

At the campaign’s website, www.savemiguel.com, a Rob Schneider video finds Miguel, a Portuguese cork oak tree. Schneider asks, “So what’s troubling this big guy?” and answers, “Our obsession with doing things cheaper and quicker. I’m talking about screw tops on wine bottles”, and continues, “The industrial factories that make screw tops are the same factories that Miguel and his family of cork trees are protecting us from”.

So we get more guilt and the big ‘cheaper and quicker’ lie cocooned in the emotional message. The success of screw caps has never been about cheaper and quicker.

Screw caps had been around for decades but gained acceptance only after a complacent cork industry denied problems associated with its product – cork taint (a mouldy smell and flavour in wine derived from 2,4,6 trichloroanisole, a compound sometimes found in corks) and oxidation.

During the nineties frustrated winemakers around the world sought solutions to these serious quality issues. Synthetic plugs offered hope early in the decade, but failed to deliver.

By the mid nineties, Australian winemakers had turned their attention to screw caps. They’d been encouraged by the wonderful aged-but-fresh condition of wines sealed under screw caps in the seventies and opened twenty years later.

Trials began again in the mid nineties. But the landmark re-launch of the screw cap came after the 1999 vintage when a group of Clare Valley riesling makers, taking a stand on quality alone, found huge retailer, wine media and consumer support.

The New Zealanders had been heading down the same path – moving to screw cap entirely to preserve wine quality. Thus, the screw cap movement began at the top of the quality pyramid in Australia and New Zealand and trickled down to cheaper wines as the decade progressed.

The fact that about seventy per cent of wine sold in Australia is now under screw cap (industry sources say this is the highest rate in the world) is surely a reason behind Amorim’s attention – even if we drink less than two per cent of the world’s wine.

Another reason, of course, is that when we export wine, we export with it the screw cap’s compelling message about wine quality. Export markets are embracing this. And partly because competitors copy good ideas, we’re also seeing a gradual take-up of screw caps by other wine producing nations.

And will Amorim’s be-our-green-partner approach seduce the Australian wine industry? Will our industry return to the “only wine closure that is truly environmentally friendly – renewable, recyclable and biodegradable”?

It’s really a bit like the abusive partner looking for one last chance. The cork industry did nothing for too long. The wine industry felt beat up. Frustrated, it moved on to a better product (one that consumers love, too) and won’t be going back.

Ironically, one cork product that appears to overcome the old technical problems, DIAM (made be Oeneo Closures), could hardly be called a ‘natural’ product. It’s made from cork that’s ground up, stripped of aroma in a process using supercritical carbon dioxide, and glued back together with polyurethane. It’s winning friends around the winemaking world, including some makers in Australia.

That’s the kind of solution the cork industry needs if it’s to hold back the tide – not just of screw caps but of whatever other seals come along now that the cork monopoly has been broken. There’s not much point playing on our heartstrings, dear cork producers, if your product spoils our wine or isn’t as good as what the competitors offer.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008

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