Prime stop­per: Por­tu­gal’s cork mak­ers buck the trend to­wards screw caps

In a cork oak for­est each tree grows at its own pace to give the raw ma­te­rial of wine cork, which seems to re­gain ground against the com­pe­ti­tion of plas­tic and cap­sule, writes Ni­co­las Gu­bert of AFP

Bangkok Post - - WEEKEND BUSINESS -

In this nat­u­ral for­est north­east of Por­tu­gal’s cap­i­tal, cen­turies-old cork oak trees are bathed in sun­light, their thick gray­ish bark stand­ing out among the green­ery.

“Look at them, it’s as if they were hu­man, each one is dif­fer­ent,” forestry engi­neer Con­ce­icao Silva says as she in­spects tree branches.

This for­est in the cen­tral Por­tuguese re­gion of Ri­batejo is a na­tional trea­sure as the trees pro­vide the raw ma­te­rial used to pro­duce over half of the world’s cork stop­pers.

“This one is four years old,” Silva says, touch­ing a tree in the nat­u­ral for­est which mea­sures about 1,300 hectares (3,200 acres).

“The cork trees can live for as long as 300 to 400 years, but they grow very slowly,” she tells AFP.

And the process to yield a us­able, money-mak­ing har­vest can take decades. “It takes around 50 years for them to bring in money,” said Jean-Marie Aracil with the French Fed­er­a­tion of Cork Unions.

The first cork har­vest, taken when the trees are be­tween 25 and 35 years, won’t yield us­able cork, nor will the sec­ond, and only a third har­vest, two decades af­ter the first, is re­ally pro­duc­tive.

But ev­ery­one ac­cepts that time passes slowly for these cork trees — found mainly in Por­tu­gal, Al­ge­ria and Spain — that have been in use since the An­cient Greeks first closed wine jugs with them in 5 BC.

And tra­di­tional and tech­ni­cal corks are still the world’s pre­ferred way to seal bot­tles, de­spite in­ex­pen­sive syn­thetic screw tops gain­ing mar­ket share in re­cent years.

Por­tu­gal re­mains the lead­ing pro­ducer of cork — seven of 10 wine bot­tles in the world are topped with Por­tuguese corks.

Just a few kilo­me­tres away from the for­est in Coruche is a plant owned by Por­tuguese com­pany Cor­ti­ceira Amorim, the world’s big­gest cork pro­ducer. Thou­sands of just-har­vested cork parts dry over an area as large as a dozen foot­ball fields.

Af­ter six months of be­ing left out to dry, the raw cork will be boiled in or­der for it to gain thick­ness and elas­tic­ity and to re­move tan­nins, be­fore it will be cut into strips and per­fo­rated as tops.

The corks will then be washed, dried, la­belled and treated with paraf­fin or sil­i­cone to fa­cil­i­tate ex­port.

Yet only about 15 to 30% of the cork will be of suf­fi­cient qual­ity to pro­duce whole cork stop­pers used to top fine wines, said Jose Pinto, the Por­tu­gal gen­eral di­rec­tor of French cork­maker Lafitte, based near Porto.

The other 80% or so will be used for parts, half for plant boil­ers and the other half to pro­duce tech­ni­cal stop­pers — cork sliv­ers glued to­gether that are cheaper than tra­di­tional whole cork stop­pers.

These stop­pers, which look a lot like the tra­di­tional va­ri­ety, are put on wines to be con­sumed within two to three years.

The caps are par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar in the United States, France and Italy among mass mar­ket wine mak­ers, the main users around the world of in­ex­pen­sive plas­tic or metal screw caps.

More and more of these types of cheaper stop­pers are be­ing pro­duced in Por­tu­gal as a way to gain back the third of the mar­ket share that has been lost to screw­tops.

“The cork is gain­ing ground,” said Car­los de Je­sus, the mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor of Amorim, which has con­cen­trated pro­duc­tion of its “Twin Top” brand of tech­ni­cal stop­pers at one fac­tory.

“Global wine con­sump­tion is in­creas­ing by 0.8 to 1% per year, Por­tu­gal’s cork ex­ports are ris­ing by 2% a year, or 1.4% for cork stop­pers”.

“We are re­gain­ing mar­ket share,” he said, adding that num­bers like this haven’t been seen since the early 2000’s.

The main rea­son cork saw de­clin­ing profits 10 years ago can be summed up with one word: “taint”.

When cork caps leak, crum­ble or be­come in­fected with mould, it gives wine a musty odour called cork taint, a bad taste caused by the chem­i­cal trichloroanisole (TCA) found in cork.

Spoilage from taint is es­ti­mated to af­fect less than 1% of bot­tles. It can lead to the com­plaint that a wine is “corked”.

“We ac­cept it less and less,” said Do­minique Tourneix, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of French cork­maker Diam Bouchage, which spe­cialises in the pro­duc­tion of “taint-free” cork.

Ac­cord­ing to Tourneix, the big­gest con­sumers of French wines — the Chi­nese, Ja­panese and Brits — “are much less tol­er­ant” of cork taint, a feel­ing that has mi­grated to their neigh­bours.

“There used to be a huge tol­er­ance (for taint), in Spain, France, Italy,” Tourneix said. “It is no longer the case, es­pe­cially when it comes to pre­mium wines”.

Tech­ni­cal corks have helped limit the prob­lem and man­u­fac­tur­ers have also in­vested heav­ily in re­search to de­tect taint.

“The ‘pre­mi­u­mi­sa­tion’ of wine is a pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ment for the in­dus­try,” Je­sus said.

Wine stop­pers ac­count for 72% of the value of the an­nual global cork har­vest, ac­cord­ing to the Por­tuguese Cork As­so­ci­a­tion. Cork is also used for in­su­la­tion ma­te­ri­als, tiles, clothes and other in­dus­trial ap­pli­ca­tions.

“Por­tu­gal — which re­mains the in­dus­try’s pow­er­house, fol­lowed by Spain, France and Italy — will con­tinue to pro­mote the plant­ing of cork oak trees,’’ Aracil said.

Af­ter the huge sum­mer for­est fires, Por­tuguese author­i­ties de­cided “to pro­mote the plant­ing of cork oaks when­ever pos­si­ble” as their in­su­lat­ing prop­er­ties can act as a “bar­rier to fire spread.”

Global wine con­sump­tion is in­creas­ing by 0.8 to 1% per year, Por­tu­gal’s cork ex­ports are ris­ing by 2% a year, or 1.4% for cork stop­pers. CAR­LOS DE JE­SUS MAR­KET­ING DI­REC­TOR OF AMORIM

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