Renowned sommelier Pierre Torrès smiles as a winemaker opens a bottle of his personal reserve for guests at a wine tasting at Le Comptoir des Crus, a wine shop in Perpignan. The familiar pop of a cork stopper appropriately accentuates his enthusiasm for his job, and national pastime of the French.
“You hear that?” he asks. “That is all where the magic is.”
Since Dom Perignon’s first use of cork stoppers around 1600, vintners from around the world have used natural cork from Portugal, Spain and the South of France to seal their bottles of wine.
But in the early 1960s, the market for bottle closures expanded to include both synthetic (or plastic) corks and screw-cap closures, forever changing the practices of winemakers and the choices for wine consumers.
In France, where wine is an everyday commodity and major export, the debate between natural cork users and synthetic or screw cap users over which is the best way to seal a bottle can get heated. Traditionalists fight pragmatists, environmentalists battle those concerned about the bottom line.
“The harvesting of cork for stoppers has always been an activity of the area,” says Antoine Tixador, president of Travet Liège, a cork processing plant in Rivesaltes, France. He explains that the people of France are fiercely proud of their wine products, and cork is an integral part of that.
“There are at least 45 [cork processing plants] in the area around Perpignan,” Tixador says. “It’s a part of our history.”
Cork has been harvested in the South of France since the first millennium and continues to be a driving economic force for the region. Workers from nearby Spain and France find work in the cork forests that are harvested in the summer months.
Jean-Marie Aracil, spokesman for the Fédération Française des Syndicats du Liège, an industry group, says screw caps and synthetic corks have dealt a major blow to the traditional cork industry.
“During the last five years, we lost nearly 20 percent of the market,” Aracil says.
In response, cork companies and wine organizations have contributed to a 20 million euro advertising campaign that has helped the industry regain some of the loss.
Market loss for cork closures is blamed mostly on goût de bouchon, or cork taint, which refers to a moldy, musky taste corked wine sometimes develops. Supporters of alternative closures point the finger at cork for the spoiled wine.
Pierrick Harang of PH Wines prevents cork taint by using screw caps. He says the traditional corkiness, oxidization and premature aging of the wine can come from poor-quality, industrialized cork. He also says that natural or synthetic closures always pose a risk of altering the quality of the wine.
“I know my wine tastes good because it is good wine,” Harang says. “I won’t have something like cork taint convince my clients otherwise.”
Tixador says that although problems with cork taint existed in the past, a lot of research and technical measures have been employed to correct it.
One study by the Cork Quality Council found that most people do not detect a difference between the corked, synthetically corked, or screw-capped wine. In fact, the study goes on to say that most people are not even aware of the phenomenon of cork taint and have “erroneous opinions why the industry is turning to alternative measures.”
But many French consumers are adamant that they can taste the difference.
So what exactly are the French on to that the rest of the world doesn’t seem to notice?
Alexandre Rieu of Albera Nayandei, a wine company outside of Perpignan, France, says the French are not open-minded about synthetic cork and screw caps because they refuse to believe they are worthy alternatives.
“It is a very old culture and they want to be the best in the world,” Rieu says. “I think they are worried [about losing tradition] a lot.”
Renowned sommelier Pierre Torrès says that the French hold their wines in particularly high regard.
“The strong image we have of French wine, with nice labels, old bottles and cork stoppers, we’re only talking about a small percentage of the wine market,” Torrès says. “Today, it doesn’t have to look old-fashioned to be good wine.”
According to a study conducted by Corticeira Amorim, tradition is not the only thing cork harvesting will preserve. Of the three popular closure options, natural cork has the least negative impact on the environment. Cork has the best ratings in terms of non-renewable energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and total production of solid waste. Cork is also recyclable.
But for some manufacturers, the costs of production may outweigh the environmental advantages. While cork is the most environmentally friendly, it also is the deepest pocket-digger – on average 80 percent more expensive than screw caps per unit.
Torrès says the only difference between wine using cork versus screw caps, with an expected life of two years, will be the cost.
Supporters of screw caps like Harang also say that while screw caps are not the most environmentally friendly, they can still be recycled or melted and reused.
Tixador says that natural cork will always be what the French consider the best choice for wine bottle closures.
Aracil agrees with Tixador, but adds that some winemakers opt to use screw-caps for certain younger wines because they don’t need to be kept as long. The French wine market is learning to adapt to this demand, even though using screw caps goes against tradition.
Most winemakers and closure producers agree that there is a market for every type of closure. Traditionally, more expensive and older wines are sealed with natural cork, and cheaper or younger wines with synthetic cork or screw caps.
“Natural cork will never take 100 percent of the market, but for good quality wines, they will always be present,” Aracil says.
“The screw cap is becoming more popular, but I think natural cork is the alternative,” Harang says. “I think that synthetic corks will get left behind.”
Another study by the Cork Quality Council says people around the world continue to buy wines with all three closures, and all three markets are currently thriving.
In France, the resistance to screw caps ensures that all players, whatever medium they are involved with, deliver the best product to their understandably specific customers.
“For French people, what’s most important is not the packaging,” Harang says. “What’s most important is what’s in the bottle.”
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