Portuguese Try to Put a Cork in Taint Concerns

Incorrect opening wine corkscrew cork breaks
Bad cork / Getty

The Portuguese Cork Association (APCOR) is making a large PR push this season to convince consumers and producers about the benefits of cork stoppers in wine bottles. Their product is coming under increasing pressure as winemakers turn to screwcaps, synthetic corks and glass stoppers to use alternatives Their multi-million-dollar campaign is a mix of print advertising, social media, and public events. APCOR’s promotion includes visits to the United States, United Kingdom, China and seven of their other large importers.

Portugal controls 63 percent of the export market for cork, netting Lisbon about $958 million per year. The United States is their largest importer, followed by France. But the concerns of so-called cork taint, those foul odors that ruined many a bottle, have pushed some winemakers, particularly New World growers, to favor plastic stoppers.

Cork taint is caused by the presence of fungal TCA compound and is easily recognized by the smell of a dank basement, or a wet newspaper, or a soggy dog wafting up to greet the drinker’s nose. The Portuguese Cork Association has spent nearly on research and development over the past decade, much of it to do away with the taint.

“Arguably the most significant technological development has been in the eradication of TCA,” APCOR Chairman João Rui Ferreira said. He cited a 2015 Concours Mondial de Bruxelles that placed cork taint failure rate at a 0.8 percent to 1.2 percent range.

Dr. Jacques-Olivier Pesme, director of the Wine & Spirits Academy at KEDGE Business School in Bordeaux, said that while cork taint may be declining, claims of eradication are “wishful thinking.” Pesme said that cork taint is usually reported to be around 5 percent. “TCA is probably decreasing, but ‘tainted cork’ expression and the bad feeling associated with the wine remains,” Pesme said.

Bradley Rickard, a professor at Cornell University’s Viticulture and Enology program, noted that while old world producers use a traditional cork, more flexibility is allowing New World regions to gravitate toward emerging technologies like synesthetic corks which, “seem to show properties that are actually better for producers and consumers.”

For now, hand-cut cork remains the stopper of choice for many premium winemakers. Silicon Valley bank predicts a 10 percent to 14 percent growth in premium wine during 2017, which could increase cork profits. But fear of cork taint remains. Rickard said,  “Synthetic corks, and all new stoppage technologies, are a real trend that is here to stay.”

Published on August 11, 2017
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