Pop! Goes The Cork: The Ideas Behind This Season’s Most Iconic Sound

It’s almost time! For cork-popping season, that is – that festive time of the year when the iconic sound of cork being released from a wine bottle signals the beginning of things.

The beginning of a party, maybe. Or the beginning of a holiday celebration with friends or colleagues or family. Or, best of all, the beginning of a conversation.
Yet, just as there are long narratives behind what it took to bring a bottle of wine to your table, there are similarly long and at times complicated considerations about whether to seal that bottle with cork, or synthetic closure, or screwcap.

Those considerations have to do partly with perceptions – synthetic closures may seem forward-thinking in terms of materials, screwcaps may seem modern in terms of ease and accessibility, and cork may seem romantic and “natural.”

Although consumer opinions about closures vary, the trend is increasingly in favor of natural cork. A recent Nielsen scan of top 100 premium brands showed an increase of their use of cork stoppers by 30%, compared to a 9% increase for alternative closures. A similar Wines & Spirits survey of top 50 restaurant wine brands showed that wines finished with cork accounted for 90% of the brands selected at restaurants, up 21% from a decade ago. During the same period, brands finished with screw caps showed a 39% decline, and brands using synthetic closures were down by 70%.

Consumer adoption, clearly, is a major consideration for wineries. But the fuller list of closure considerations is long.

St Francis Winery President and CEO Christopher Silva, for example, points to three specific factors, for starters, that influenced the winery’s shifting from natural cork twenty years ago, to synthetic cork, and back to natural cork in 2012.

Silva and his team first consider efficacy, which is whether the closure actually protects the integrity of the wine inside the bottle

Secondly they consider ease of extraction, or how smoothly the consumer can get the cork out of the bottle.

And thirdly they consider appearance. “If it looks cheap or plastic or otherwise low-grade,” Silva said, “then something’s been lost in the overall experience regardless of what we put inside the bottle.”

Here are four additional factors that wineries like St Francis and others consider when it comes to closures, each of which shows that there is more to cork than meets the ear.

Cork aligns with the environmental stewardship mission of St Francis and many other wineries today. “We are a certified sustainable Sonoma County business that is powered by solar energy,” Silva said, “uses eco-friendly packaging, and is active in water conservation and recycling.”
Cork is biodegradable and recyclable. Cork groves capture carbon dioxide and reduce greenhouse gases. And in Portugal, where St Francis sources their cork, economic incentives are provided to companies who maintain the cork groves.

The Livio Felluga winery in Italy’s Friuli region undertook a period of experimentation with closures. For some of their white wines, which they believe are more vulnerable to detrimental interaction with the cork, they use screwcap closures that in their experience preserve the nuances of their wines’ aromatic profile.

However, according to winemaker Andrea Felluga, some markets don’t allow for screwcaps. In Italy, for example, less than 2% of the market accepts screwcaps while that percentage drops to zero in Russia. There, non-cork closures are simply not an option.

Back in 1993, St Francis Winery founder Joe Martin was traveling the country to sell his wines, which were then bottled under cork. He grew tired of the inconsistency of natural cork, and of the too-high percentage of bottles he opened that experienced cork taint. So the Sonoma-based winery shifted to synthetic cork but had the foresight to continue bottling several cases every year with natural cork.

It was a valuable decision. The winery continued to monitor quality control and efficacy from year to year, as the cork industry itself improved its standards. Silva said that around the year 2000, they had seen significant jumps in consistency and quality control within the cork industry.

“We were increasingly satisfied that the natural cork offered a far superior alternative,” he said. “The consistency and minimization of TCA was so significant that the natural cork product had passed synthetic cork in all areas.” [TCA, or Trichloroanisole, is a natural compound that, at higher levels of concentration, causes the “musty” aromas or flavors to wine that identifies it as “corked.”]

By 2012 the winery had shifted back to natural cork and hasn’t looked back.

Silva and his team at St Francis found that synthetic closures peaked at about four to six years; after that, the wine was slowly compromised.

“We lost one of the key attributes of wine, which is long-term cellar worthiness,” he said. “If we’re telling consumers that our wines get better with age, but the limit is five years, then we’re off-message.”
Silva points to the winery’s desire to offer customers an ultra-premium wine experience that is consistent with the high expectations that both consumers and critics associate with the brand.

Source: Cathy Huyghe, Forbes

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