Michel Cabral
Miguel F.A. Ferreira Cabral, Amorim's head of research and development, in his high-tech laboratory.
Consumer questions for the cork industry

Before leaving for Portugal, I invited forum participants and readers to submit questions, which Amorim representatives agreed to answer as directly and candidly as possible. Here, presented in the order received, are those questions, with my transcription of replies from Amorim & Irmãos executives including Carlos de Jesus, director of marketing and communications; Michel F. A. Ferreira Cabral, head of research and development; Victor Ribeiro, CEO, and António Rios de Amorim, President.

Is there a sufficient supply of cork for the generations to come?

Absolutely yes. We have a net growth of about 4 to 5 percent a year, between natural regeneration and plantings, versus natural mortality rate. In addition, social and political considerations in Algeria have changed, allowing us to do much more with the natural resources there than 10 years ago. Also, the introduction of technical stoppers allows us to make much more in absolute numbers with the same amount of raw material. If on top of that we also have an increase in the amount of raw material, it's easy to see that this argument does not hold water. We have been able to meet the demand of an increasingly large number of bottles being stopped and filled - 14 billion a year.

Why did the Babylonians stop using cork to cover the amphorae?

As far as I know, the Babylonians did not use amphorae. The Romans and Phoenicians did. Cork stoppers as we know them today were first used by Dom Perignon in the 1600s. Before that, cork was used in countless ways, including as amphora stoppers, jar stoppers, etc. When empires get shattered, their propensity to drink wine as a sign of civilization tends to diminish.

Is TCA a compound that could be found in a bottle with a screw cap?

Yes. There is plenty of anecdotal and scientific information demonstrating the presence of anisoles in other matters than cork - including the lining of a screw cap, as was discovered at a Swiss university, Pascal Jacquemettaz and Urban Frey at the University Of Applied Sciences Valais.

Exactly what is the realistic cork taint rate now and what is the goal?

I can't speak for the entire industry. It is close to zero for us. The goal is to bring it down to a point where it is no longer an issue. For Amorim, that goal has been reached. When we have our bestselling product alone - Twin Tops - we sold 850 million units last year, and we had one complaint about TCA. And in that case, gas chromatography showed that his wine was contaminating my cork. There was more TCA in the wine than there was in the cork.

Does cork play a scientific (and please explain with empirical evidence) role in wine's aging ability?

Empirically, sure. La Tache, Latour, Grange - that's empirical. We know that if cork is in contact with wine and is stopping the wine for 10, 20 years, it plays a role in it. Scientifically we can do that through the first peer-reviewed article to be published on closure comparison, published in September 2005 in the American Journal Of Food Chemistry, that clearly demonstrates the different rates of ingression of O2 through the different cork stoppers and oil-derived stoppers. It has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is O2 ingression trhough cork stoppers at a predictable and consistent rate. If O2 comes in, and the best wines use cork, then the aging of the best wines in the world depends on cork - it's a tautology.

Realistically, why has the cork industry been so slow to address the TCA problem with definitive solutions?

Hegemony. Two hundred years of it. Any industry that enjoys such a long period of growth unopposed will begin to lose its ability to listen. That's why the screwcaps and plastics represented a proverbial kick in the pants for us. That we needed to wake up. As such, the true enemy is not an oil-derived stopper or metal stopper; the true enemy for us is the cork producer that has not invested in quality. We hate taint as much as the wine makers do - probably even more - that's why we are hopeful that the ongoing consolidation process going through the [cork] industry will end up with less cork producers but better cork producers.

Does modern science offer a solution to the problem now, and if so, what is it?

The solution is a combination of thorough preventive measures and curative measures applied when and if necessary. Absolute zero does not exist. I can assure you that no bale of corks leaves these premises with an average of more 3 nanograms per liter [TCA] for the whole bale; we're going to bring this down to 2, and then we're going to bring it down to 1.

One fundamental issue: The goal is based on the assumption of 8, 6 or 4 nanograms as the threshold of perception. Our holy grail is determining a universal perception threshold [for TCA]. Meanwhile, throw everything we have at it, as quickly and as strongly as possible, and bring those levels down as far and as fast as we can. If it turns out that [the perception threshold] is 4 nanograms per liter, great; if it turns out it's 2, and we're at 3, there's only 1 to go.

Besides TCA, what other environmental elements threaten the cork industry?

There are many more. We need to be careful about maintaining the best forest-management practices - it's fundamental that we keep raising those standards and not be satisfied.

Has global warming had any impact on the industry?

No. It doesn't for one simple reason. The native environment of cork is very dry. Cork thrives on warmth.

The cork industry says that the reduction in real cork usage in the wine industry is going to result in the decimation of the Portuguese cork oak forests. I have heard instead that the major cause of deforestation is the Portuguese who are building holiday homes and condominiums in the forests. Is this the case?

We are not devoid of blame. As conscious as we are of our cork forests, it's true if you destroy 10 cork trees it will be major headlines. In this case we have been witnessing two specific situations in which they were planning to destroy 1,200 cork trees - all of a sudden a big Portuguese bank and real-estate interest was planning to build a shopping mall and condos [in the cork forests]. If you cut them down, you will have legal problems, and you will be prevented from building anything on that property. We have to take this seriously - this represents 3 percent of our GDP. The law has to have the teeth to bite - and it does.

But deforestation? It is an issue. The ecological argument was misused in the past, but it's true. We're not playing the ecolocical card. We have to have the technical solutions before we can play that card. But it's true, that if the loss of cork as a wine stopper would have a deep and serious impact. Just becuase the Iberian lynx was misused [in lobbying for cork] doesn't mean that it's not the most endangered animal in the world.

The Cork Quality Council reports that Portugal has only a 33% share of production. What is happening in the other countries growing cork oaks, notably Spain (23%) and Algeria (21%)?

Amorim sources cork in quantity from all three countries; for a time, Algeria was problematical because its cork forests were in regions subject to terrorism and guerrilla warfare, which made it difficult to do business there. That is changing now.

What is their strategy to deal with screwcaps? Are they basically going to hold their breath and hope that some problems show up with them that will make them less acceptable to consumers than corks? Or do they expect some advances in processing that will significantly drop the rate of cork taint we now experience?

Basing one's strategy on the flaws of alternative closures would be easy, given that they have obviously failed to delivered the promised perfection, and cork does a remarkable job in 98 percent or 99 percent of cases. But that would imply choosing the lowest common denominator which, in turn, would be a tremendous disservice to wine makers, wine consumers, wine distributors and wine critics worldwide.

Besides, such a negative attitude towards quality and performance could land its proponents in a tough position. Imagine if newer and more performant alternative closures were to be launched in the future? How could an organization with such an attitude towards quality deal with that kind of scenario? The millions of R&D dollars invested and the quality results achieved are the best guarantee that, at Amorim, our strategy will never be determined by what the competitors do ... or don't do.

In addition, as solid and significant as these results are, they represent a great departure base and not the arrival point for our continuous improvement mentality.

I'd like to have them answer this: what technologies are they pursuing to address cork taint, and why should we believe that they'd work after so many announcements that came to naught?

That is quite a fair question given that past promises by other cork companies to deal with TCA failed to deliver entirely what they promised. Our option was to develop well-funded R&D efforts within strict scientific guidelines, and then invite independent, international and equally scientific institutions such as AWRI, UK's Campdem & Chroleywood and France's Excell Laboratoires to validate the results obtained. No other anti-TCA system can claim to have these multiple validations, and that is the best way to differentiate science from science-fiction.

But there are two other fundamental factors that need to be noted. The only way to defeat anything that is mesured in nanograms is through science - and that requires resources. Being several times larger than its next competitor (as Forbes Magazine described us, "Amorim is the number one, two, three, four and five in the cork industry"), we could command those kind of resources. But we also took a unique two-pronged approach that involves curative measures firmly grounded in preventive measures. Curative measures are headline grabbers, but it is the combination of both that allowed Amorim to defeat TCA across all different types of cork stoppers at all different price-points.

Is there any science at all to settle once and for all the question of whether or not oxygen ingress 1) occurs, and 2) is a factor in wine aging? They can't just assert either case, they have to show the science behind their assertion.

In short, the answer is yes. The study backing it up is the first peer-reviewed closure study that was recently published in the American Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. (Nondestructive Colorimetric Method To Determine the Oxygen Diffusion Rate through Closures Used in Winemaking, Paulo Lopes, Cédric Saucier and Yves Glories, Faculté d'Oenologie de Bordeaux, September 2005.)

What is the failure rate of screwcaps, and can they provide data to prove this?

The fact that nobody can give a precise and accurate answer should give pause to think and ponder. Personally, I don't have any data that can be deemed statistically relevant. Some wine judges are collecting data and there is anecdotal evidence that point to a high rate of failure that range from oxidation on one extreme, to reduction on the other. But I think more is necessary. Although it is interesting to see over two dozen possible technical problems identified in a publication that actually defends screwcaps. And that is just during bottling operations ... A truly encompassing, independent, multi-year, peer-reviewed study that answers these and many other questions would be much useful and a great contribution to bring parts of this debate to more rational levels.

Why should we use cork as a wine closure? (In other words: don't make a negative case about screwcaps or any other alternative closure, ask them to make the scientific case for why corks are the best solution.) What specific benefits does it provide? Encourage them to not to use the words "romance" or "tradition" in the answer.

No need to use the "R" and "T" words indeed. But words such as: technical performance; short and long-term reliability; extraction and insertion forces; consumer, wine maker and wine distributor preference; desired wine evolution; sustainability of natural resources; micro-oxigenation; price-quality ratio; delivery times; bottling line track-record; minimum delivery quantities; recycable; social and ecological impact, any of these can be individually used to make the case for cork.

It is the combination of all these positive aspects in one single closure that present an unbeatable proposition and a compelling argument for cork. But more is needed. For example, does the fact that cork comes from an oak play a beneficial role? Now that we have defeated TCA, we can move on to scientifically demonstrate what wine makers and wine consumers know empirically. Meaning, why is that when cork works, nothing comes even close to it? Why is that, after all these years, we are all still talking about alternatives and never about substitutes to cork? In summary, we will be able to - scientifically - find out why every single "Best in the World" list includes wine bottled with a cork. Then, perhaps we can go back to those two beautiful concepts ...

Many American and British wine enthusiasts have been talking recently about the supposition that a TCA-tainted wine can be ameliorated by placing a piece of polythene plastic such as a sandwich wrapper into the afflicted wine in the bottle and leaving it there for several hours to a few days. Do you see any merit at all in this hypothesis?

I have heard about this and I tried with a polyethylene film normally used in the kitchen. The result was good in terms of TCA, but, as we were expecting, the film absorbs also other aromatic compounds, making the wine something different. Obviously the plastic film has nothing selective that absorbs just TCA. This is the reason why synthetic stoppers are scalping a significant number of aromatic compounds from the wine as Mark Sefton from the AWRI published two or three years ago.

Portugal Diary 2005 Index