Changes in the Cork Industry

11/08/2019 When the age-old companion of wine, which is the cork, hinders the wine's purity, it is a matter of concern.

‘POP!’ Somewhere, a sommelier just broke the cork out of the bottleneck, letting the aroma of the wine fill the air with elation, bringing a deep inhaling expression on the wine enthusiasts’ face. The cork has a crucial role in keeping the wine the way it appears after opening it, also helping the wine to age and mature stably and gracefully.

These corks also have a sustainability aspect attached to them as firstly, corks are not made by cutting the whole tree. They are made by stripping the bark of the tree to a certain point, and that in turn, is also beneficial for the trees to grow properly. The bark stripping is essential for the healthy growth of the trees. The oak trees have a life of more than 200 years under required surroundings. The authentic Oaktree corks were initially used by the Greeks and Romans. No doubt, it was a great natural, renewable choice made by them to cover up their prestigious wine bottlenecks.

The cork and wine industry are running hand in hand since the corks can be considered one of the main reasons because of which the wine is what it is. The universal quality or fact of these magnificent natural corks is that apart from being that firm seal for the wine bottle, it allows just the minimal, required levels of air to enter the wine bottle, helping in oxidation of the wine, which in turn, helps the wine to age as it should and evolve in taste and aroma with time.

Generally, cork cultivation happens in Portugal and Spain Just like everything else, corks also come with ranging quality. Some corks are not dense enough to open, with wine seeping up the sides of the bottleneck within a year and cause spilling of wines, then there are corks filled with glue and cork dust known as Colmated Corks which are low in quality, bleached corks, and some high-end corks costing $50 each. These corks vary from their quality, resulting in the good or bad grip they hold towards the bottleneck.

Talking about the recent times, a lot of varied changes have been made by the winemakers to seal their bottles of wine, leaving behind the traditional, authentic oak tree corks. The culprit is a compound TCA- Trichloroanisole-2,4,6 which causes ‘Cork Taint’, which is also found naturally in wood, water, soil, fruit, and vegetables. This means that other factors, including the storage of wine in wooden barrels, can contribute to wine spoilage. So, the repeated problem which is surfacing the cork industry is the cork taint which spoils the wines causing musty flavours and contamination. One of the other reasons for cork taint is also that the corks are bleached in order to make them appear clean. Hence, bleaching adds up to cause cork taint.

Cork taint is surely a serious problem because it degrades the quality of wine which is the foremost taste of the winemakers, the wine brand which is making it, tampering with the taste and feel of the grape liquid. But considering the natural properties of the cork which are just so good for their wines, certain improvements and alterations in cork wood growing shall be done so that the TCA levels are less and do not occur naturally. Increased understanding of the compounds that cause the musty aroma can also help wineries to tackle this problem.

Naturally, the winemakers are going to look for other seals which will replace the authentic corks, that would be safer for their wines. TCA is a natural agent of contamination, it was time, the winemakers made the shift to other options. Then came in screw caps which were extensively used in Australia. Nearly every bottle had the screw caps on, signifying how the cork taint, the lower quality fiasco has affected the winemakers. Moreover, the contribution of cork in sealing those fine wine bottles cannot be forgotten as it was an unsaid tradition. But what else can be done when the same regal thing deteriorates? You bring other alternatives in the market, such as synthetic plastic corks, aluminium screw caps, vino seal, stelvin closures, plastic bottle stoppers, which seems like a quite big team of cork alternatives. Abandoning the natural cork and shifting to other options, was a sensible move so far for the winemakers to protect their wine till the cork finally comes back, whenever, this move of teaming up alternatives was rational. However,  the natural cork is not non-existent or is not forgotten,

Even though these alternatives were said to be the next best thing, there was still a gap of efficiency in them. The screw caps were so tightly gripped that it did not allow the required amount of air to enter the wine bottle which is extremely necessary for the wine to oxidize and acquire a mature state. However, the work in process scenario was prevalent here as well, because reports had it that improvements are going on to make certain small holes or lighten the grip to a certain extent which allows the air to pass through.

Talking about the synthetic plastic corks which are deep purple ones resembling original wine corks, were way more lenient with air. Allowing more than required air to interact with the wine, they also needed some improvement. In current times, these synthetic plastic corks are also going through an R&D process, finding ways to improve them.

Next in line is the vino seal, which is a glass stopper that creates a perfect seal for the wine bottles but is not accepted as much. Yet, it still accounts for a strong wine seal, moving at a great pace to replace the corks which are in the bad books right now but maybe improved and used later. But for now, the wine industry is dealing with this setback by accepting cork alternatives.

Stelvin closures and aluminium seals are yet other cork alternatives which are gradually coming into the light and are being used, making the cork alternative team strong.

Looking at the present scenario, and then comparing it with the old cork industry, it looks quite deviant, where corks were the only standard and authentic wine seals, but today we see so many artificial alternatives. Nevertheless, a thing which has been used for ages now and is very much essential for the wines to develop, it cannot be completely shut down as wineries strive to become increasingly “green,” and so many see corks as the sustainable way to go. Chlorinated products have been in disuse for roughly a decade, so perhaps when newer crops of bark come up (the trees take 9-12 years to develop the layer of cork), cork taint levels could decrease, or at least we can hope.

Till the cork is back, these artificial cork alternatives are sure to keep up with the demands of the wine bottlenecks, sealing wine bottles, maybe allowing the required amount of air that the cork used to allow in some parts of the world or in some cases where cork taint is not a problem, but until then, the cork alternatives have got the back of the wine industry.

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