Aluminium giants Alcan and Alcoa join the wine-seal fray

The battle for the top of the bottle is diversifying as the pure-cork monopoly crumbles. What was once the domain of the cork came under challenge from synthetic plugs in cheaper wines in the mid nineties before being blown wide open by recent widespread acceptance of screw cap sealed premium wines.

But the synthetic plug and the screw cap are just the beginning of the story. Driven initially by winemaker dissatisfaction with cork (too many cork tainted bottles; too much oxidation), the quest for alternatives has been taken up by businesses large and small eager to grab a slice of the world’s multi-billion unit market.

The Australian wine industry alone expects to seal about one billion bottles in 2005.

According to Vinpac International – the packaging subsidiary of Beringer Blass Wine Estates (a subsidiary of the Fosters Group) – cork and synthetic plugs will seal about 850 million of those bottles and screw caps the remaining 150 million.

Of the estimated 850 million plugs to be used, 250 million will be whole natural cork; 350 million ‘technical cork’ (cork agglomerate with pure cork discs at the end); and 250 million synthetic.

The screw cap’s 15 per cent share of this market is impressive given its recent arrival, its focus on the top end of the market and the major investments made by glass manufacturers to produce thread-top bottles and by winemakers to install application equipment.

Clearly, it was an idea whose time had come and was embraced both by winemakers and consumers of high-quality wine.

However, since the screw cap went mainstream as the only viable non-plug seal in Australia and New Zealand, at least two other technologies have emerged – Zork from a small Adelaide-based operator and Vino-Lok, manufactured in Worms, Germany by the giant Alcoa.

Zork, first released last year on d’Arenberg ‘The Footbolt’ McLaren Vale Shiraz 2002, looks like Ned Kelly’s helmet. It’s a plug, but the plug doesn’t form the seal. It’s there to make a little ‘pop’ on extraction. The barrier between wine and air is a little disc inside the hood – very similar in principle to how a screw cap works: an impermeable, neutral disc squished onto the lip of the bottle.

A tamper-proof coil of plastic holds Zork in place. Tear the tamper-proof coil away and the plug slips effortlessly into and out of the bottle. Had Zork arrived on the scene a few years earlier it may have offered a serious alternative to screw caps if only because it can be used on any standard wine bottle.

But with the screw cap entrenched in the market and major capital investments already implemented by bottle manufacturers (to produce thread-top bottles) and in winery application facilities, Zork looks to be, for the time being at least, a niche player in the domestic market. Despite this, Zork’s John Brooks says support from a number of McLaren Vale wineries and De Iuliis in the Hunter Valley keeps the production line at full capacity.

However, with production capability about to increase tenfold, Zork’s hopes of becoming a mainstream cork alternative lie in the United States where vignerons show far less commitment to the screw cap and a number of major players, including Mondavi and Kendall Jackson, have commenced Zork trials.

The next mainstream plug alternative, perhaps the most elegant looking of the new seals, is Alcoa’s Vino-Lok, a glass stopper with a synthetic o-ring that forms the airtight seal. Concealed beneath an aluminium capsule, not unlike those on traditional cork sealed bottles (remember them?), the glass stopper lifts out after.

Perhaps there’s a touch of irony that Alcoa, a giant aluminium producer (turnover $US23.5 billion), should chose a glass stopper to take on the aluminium Stelvin – the world’s leading wine screw cap, manufactured by Pechiney, a subsidiary of Alcan, a similarly gigantic aluminium producer ($US25.7 billion turnover).

That companies of this scale should enter the wine-seal market tells us where they believe the future lies. For drinkers this portends a new era of easy to open bottles filled with bright, fruity, untainted wine.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2005 & 2007