Wine Enthusiast Podcast: Put a (Better) Cork In It

Illustration of different cork closures for Wine Enthusiast Podcsast episode 83
Illustration by Ellen Surrey

Cork closures are nothing new in the world of wine but, thankfully, the technology making them more reliable is. From questions of sustainability and the use of alternate materials to improved testing techniques, it turns out that not all corks are created equally. But many are being made better than ever before.

In honor of our The New Now issue, we’re getting a little geeky and diving deep with some real cork dorks. Contributing Editor Sean Sullivan talks to Carlos de Jesus, director of marketing and communication, and Dr. Paulo Lopes, director of innovation, from Amorim, the world’s largest cork producer, with over 5.2 billion corks sold annually in more than 37 countries. We also tap Denis van Roey, CEO, and Stéphane Vidal, head of strategic innovation, at Vinventions, producers of Nomacorc.

Together, these industry innovators reflect on the past, present and future of corks, discussing how to make a more sustainable and biodegradable product, and why tainted closures may soon be a thing of the past.

You can learn everything you’ve ever wanted to know about cork taint in this article by Sean Sullivan, or check out this article to read more about the pros and cons of different wine closures.

Episode Transcript

Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.

Speakers: Lauren Buzzeo, Sean Sullivan, Dr. Paolo Lopes, Carlos de Jesus

Lauren Buzzeo 0:08
Hello, and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast. You’re serving of wine trends and passionate people beyond the bottle. I’m Lauren Buzzeo, the managing editor at Wine Enthusiast. And in this episode in honor of our new now issue out now, we’re getting a little geeky with some real cork dorks. Sure, cork closures are nothing new in the world of wine. But the technology being used to make them better than ever is, from questions of sustainability and the use of alternate materials to improved testing techniques. Contributing Editor Sean Sullivan talks to key people from cork industry innovators, Amorim and Vinventions, to take a look at the current state of cork production, and why tainted closures may soon be a thing of the past. So get ready to dive deep into the uber traditional, but still evolving world of corks and closures.

Sean Sullivan 1:04
I’m Sean Sullivan, contributing editor for Wine Enthusiast. And today I’m talking with Carlos de Jesus, director of marketing communications, and Dr. Paolo Lopes, director of innovation, at Amorim, the world’s largest supplier of wine closures. Thank you both for being here today.

Carlos de Jesus 1:18
Thank you.

Dr. Paolo Lopes 1:18
Thank you.

Sean Sullivan 1:19
So for people who might not be familiar with how wine corks are made, give us a brief overview of kind of what that process looks like.

Carlos de Jesus 1:27
Well, it’s a very long process that spans actually several decades. To give everybody an idea, you cannot touch a core oak until the cork oak is about 25 years old. That’s when the first harvest takes place. Obviously, we do not cut down the cork oaks, we kind of peel them a little bit like a banana. But that first harvest does not give you good enough cork to make a wine stopper. And by law, you cannot go back to that cork oak until at least nine years have gone by. So the second harvest, you can make already a few things, but still you cannot make the very good cork stoppers. So off the bat, you have 25 years plus nine plus nine years—43 years before that cork oak starts producing something that is is actually interesting from a quality point of view or from a revenue point of view. And property owners ask at that precise moment that someone with a very sharp axe starts harvesting that cork. This is a very stressful moment, as you can imagine. If you look at this from an asset management point of view, you can imagine how stressful it is because if you hurt the tree, if you damaged that tree, the cork quality will never be good. At the same time, if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing, not only you’re damaging the tree, but you’re not going to be able to harvest the cork. So it’s a very, it’s a best paid agricultural job in the world actually. It can be as much as 135 Euros a day to do this. And that’s the moment that these cork planks are moved into the Amorim perimeter where we’ll be taking care of them. First for storage and seasoning over the next six to nine months. And then it’s very equally long journey starts that can conclude 10, 15, 28 years after that cork goes into a bottle. So in a very, very compacted format, that’s the process.

Sean Sullivan 3:29
Yeah, that’s an extremely long period of time to be talking about for for a product like that. Amorim makes over 5.5 billion stoppers every year making you guys the largest wine closure company in the world. Give us give us a little background about Amorim.

Carlos de Jesus 3:47
Well, we are a publicly listed company. So you can buy shares in Amorim. But it is still at its core, in a way that it’s managed, very much as a family company in terms of the values, in terms of the of the way that we look at really stewardship of a great sustainability story. The company, we celebrated actually in 2020, 150 years of existence. So much for the few parties that we had planned to celebrate 150 years. That went out the window very, very quickly in the beginning of last year. But we managed to deliver on on an important promise, which is to be able to get rid of TCA once and for all in the year. And 150 years later, here we are using cork on wine stoppers all the way to SpaceX and NASA and the European Space Agency application. So quite quite a ride in those 150 years.

Sean Sullivan 4:50
Yeah, that’s quite a story. Talk to me about what some of the advantages are of natural cork as as a wine closure.

Carlos de Jesus 4:59
Let’s get the scientist to go on that one.

Dr. Paolo Lopes 5:02
Okay, so I will put the event at three different levels. And two of them then Carlos could develop even further related to sustainability issues or the the, the premium image that the cork could convey to the brand. But on the technical side, I should say that it’s the kind of unique wine development that the cork allows that makes quite a single product and the wine aging under cork unique. So, this is essentially based at three different levels. The level of the sealing properties and in terms of the amount of oxygen that the cork is able to convey to the wine. The amount and the kinetics of the cork it’s unique. No other sealing system is able to provide this kind of oxygenation over time—this is one point. The second point is to be at at the level of the interaction. The second and third point is the interaction between the cork and the wine itself. Either the interaction towards the wine or towards the cork, so towards the cork you’re talking about essentially the absorption of compounds off the wine. And you notice that this interaction, this absorption of compounds off the wine, especially compounds, that could be responsible for the fruity floral aromas of the wine are not absorbed by the cork. This is totally different from synthetic materials such as plastics, which have a higher capacity of scalping, which is the name of the phenomenon in English in the working preserves much better the the aroma of the wines and the secondary and tertiary aromas of the wine compared with the other materials, and then it will be the interaction towards the wine and the kind of the compounds that could be released into the wine from the cork, that will interact with the wine composition in this. We have been doing some research work on that we have been able to show that interaction, the cork will have a contribution in the wine develop, such as the reduce the stringency of the wine over time, the bitter scent of the wine or even increasing the little bit the sucrosity of the wine. So at the totally different scale, what you’re talking about is the cork will behave somehow as the oak barrel. In reality, it’s the bark of oak, in pretty much you will have the same kind of interactions that you have with the oak in terms of the compounds that could be released into the wine. And all these three levels, the low level of scalping, the interaction with these phenolic compounds that are released into the wine then will interact with the wine composition and the contribution in terms of the the oxygen, which is quite unique will make a quite unique way how the cork could age the wine in bottle.

Sean Sullivan 8:20
And what are some of the drawbacks of using natural corks?

Dr. Paolo Lopes 8:25
Well, I think that the major drawbacks or the what used to be the major drawbacks, it was related to natural product and the contamination with the TCA. It was a quite rare phenomenon. It reached very low percentage, of course, still, in terms of the use as a seal to a wine bottle. I should say that it was the major drawback and I think we made it last year to solve this major drawback in my opinion.

Sean Sullivan 9:03
Yeah, so speaking about cork taint. So cork taint is a contaminant that can kind of mute the aromas and flavors, or even higher levels can make the wine smell or kind of taste reminiscent of a moldy basement. Talk to us about some of the things that Amorim has done in terms of approaching dealing with cork taint over the years as I know you’ve done a number of different things over a long period of time.

Dr. Paolo Lopes 9:27
Yeah, so the the strategy started I think in early 2000 when the creation with the research and development department in order to try to find solutions for the TCA problem. So in the strategy is based on three main pillars in terms of prevention, quality control, and this contamination technology. So in terms of prevention, what you actually want to do it’s to prevent the formation of the TCA, which is a compound that results from mold activity and some bacteria activity. So, with this preventive measures, you want to avoid any kind of contamination of the cork, which is an organic material, it’s easy to be contaminated somehow. But with the measurement that we have implemented since the 2000s to today, we are sure that is not during the manufacturing chain that we are producing that. So, we have been able to create conditions to not have the contaminations with molds, removing raw material that was already contaminated and attacked by moles, removing products that could eventually contribute to such as chlorine to the formation of TCA. These are all measurements that we have implemented in order to prevent the formation of TCA. From the other side, obviously the quality control is very important, because if you are not able to measure, it will be very difficult to solve it. And today, we have a strict quality control based on objective analysis chemical analysis done by gas chromatography. We are able to do it with more than 50,000 samples per month, in order to control and check the level of contamination of cork at different steps in the process from the forest up to the final customer. The corks are controlled several times in order to mitigate the risk to have contaminated corks for the customer. And finally, there is contamination measures and technologies that we implemented. We started in 2002, 2003. Implementing the technology that we call ROSA evolutions applied to granules and natural cork stoppers respectively, which is based on treatment with water steam, in order to remove the TCA. And during times, we’re able to upgrade those technologies to give even extra yields of extraction of the TCA. And more recently, we developed systems, such as an Naturity and Xpür that will allow us even to reduce even further the level of contamination you have effectiveness that you didn’t have with the the steam process. So pretty much this is the strategy and what we have been doing this last 20 years.

Carlos de Jesus 12:40
Please let me just add one thing because so people don’t think that, you know, we’re a little bit slow. Taking 20 years to resolve a problem may sound a little bit excessive. But let me remind our listeners that we’re talking about defeating something that is measured in nanograms, in parts per trillion. If we want term of comparison, it’s a little bit like, you know, in the pharmaceutical industry to do a lot of your quality controlling parts per billion. Quote unquote, easy. Well, we have to do this in parts per trillion. So we are looking at the quality control cutoff point, for example, with one of the technologies that we have recently implemented and detect that allows you to control half of a nanogram per liter. That’s equivalent of trying to find one drop of water in 800 Olympic-sized swimming pools. And today we do that in seconds with reliability that is so high that allows us actually to process corks on an individual basis, on a one by one basis.

Sean Sullivan 13:51
Yeah, I think you’re exactly right, Carlos. Humans are incredibly incredibly sensitive to trichloroanisole, TCA, the the main compound we talk about when we talk about cork taint. So we’re talking about very, very, very minute amounts of these compounds that we’re able to detect and that subsequently need to be removed. In 2016, Amorim announced technology called NDTech, which looks at screening each cork individually for cork taint and then removing those corks that have been affected. Talk to us a little bit about how that process works.

Dr. Paolo Lopes 14:30
So NDTech was a technology that we developed with with a company, a partner, which is a spinoff from the University of Cambridge. And it was a major breakthrough for for us because it was a technology that allows us in an industrial environment to screen individually each cork and identify the cork that presents TCA. It’s some kind of electronic nose if you could put it like that, which is in reality a gas chromatography that is able to screen in in 16 seconds right now, if the cork is having TCA or not. It’s a non destructive process. And so by doing this process, we are able to exclude the corks that are contaminated. Actually a little bit more than those corks that are contaminated because you really tune the machine to risk zero in terms of the approval of the corks that then you use to individually guarantee that are TCA free.

Sean Sullivan 15:38
So they’re kind of going through this process, then it’s a gas chromatography like process, and you said it’s about about 60 seconds to screen each cork?

Dr. Paolo Lopes 15:49
16. It’s about 16 seconds.

Sean Sullivan 15:52
Okay, 16, excuse me.

Dr. Paolo Lopes 15:56
I don’t know any technology in the world that is able in 16 seconds to detect the compounds such as the TCA at the levels that we are detecting, which is lower than half parts per trillion. Point five nanograms per liter, which is quite amazing, the capacity of this technology.

Sean Sullivan 16:24
I would assume it takes some time to kind of ramp up production. What kind of throughput are you able to do on that now. It was a 2016 announcement, so we’re four or five years into it at this point.

Dr. Paolo Lopes 16:37
So at this point last year, we are able to deliver to the market, around 85 million corks, pretty much high end corks, because if you sell this as an option to the customer, it has a premium price, because the costs are quite heavy. So in 2016, you start with 7 million, and you will be able to improve the technology improve the conditions to get better yields. And right now you’re at 85 million corks per year.

Carlos de Jesus 17:24
One of the things I was going to add is that we not only ramped up that quantity, that output quite nicely. But we also added that technology to another product category, which is sparkling and Champagne stoppers, which today can also be subjected to that to that high tech scanning devices.

Sean Sullivan 17:50
Gotcha. You talked about the kind of cost of the analytical investment and I would imagine coming up with the original technology and then rolling that technology out at a commercial scale had to have been quite expensive. What did that kind of investment look like for Amorim?

Carlos de Jesus 18:08
Well, it’s heavy on any company because we’re looking at, again, very, very sophisticated cutting-edge technology. So we talking about we started with about $12 million. But if you add in the capex, the capital expenditures associated with that maintenance, just the technicians that are necessary to operate this because remember, we’re running this 24/7, because the demand is so so high that we cannot we cannot afford any slack here. So we bring all of that together, the number behind the 12 million, but to reach for the launching was 12 million. So quite, quite worth the effort to be honest with you.

Sean Sullivan 18:53
Yeah, quite a quite a sizable investment. And just to give people some perspective, who may not know, give us kind of a ballpark of what wine corks cost companies is kind of a range of what we’re looking at that number in perspective.

Carlos de Jesus 19:09
And I think range is the key operational concept here because it will be akin to asking, you know, how much is a bottle of wine cost? Well, it could be anything from money in the United States, but certainly here in Europe, it could be you know, 2 Euros, 3 Euros, all the way to thousands of dollars per bottle as we know. Our product portfolio reflects that myriad of price points that you have in the world of wine, so it could be anything and I’m talking about wine stoppers here and not considering some amazing things that we are asked to do in the worlds of spirits of Tequila and Cognac, etc. That’s a different whole world. But when you look at wine, you’re looking at something that could be $3.5, $4 on one side of the spectrum, all the way to 4.5, 5 cents on the dollar for the opposite end. But again, that only reflects the needs that the different price points have, the needs at different varietals have, the needs at different life shelves that the wine has. It’s very, very complex is anything but one size fits all.

Sean Sullivan 20:26
Yeah, absolutely. But ultimately, you’ve kind of, you’ve got a $12 million investment for a product that’s, you know, somewhere between a few cents to, to a few dollars potentially. So it’s a, it’s a very large sized investment.

Carlos de Jesus 20:41
Absolutely. But to be honest with you, when you look at the grand scheme of things and everything that has been invested in quality in research and development over the last 15, 20 years, it’s a heavy amount, obviously, it will always be. But not a significant part of everything that Amazon has invested to be where it is today, and to give our listeners a perspective of what that means those 5.4 or 5.5 billion stoppers that we do every year. That’s roughly 2 billion more corks every year than we were selling when the plastics industry came onto the scene. So it did pay off.

Sean Sullivan 21:24
We talked about this kind of being an add on for the different products. What is what is the additional cost look like for the NDTech corks that are screened one by one for TCA?

Carlos de Jesus 21:35
It depends on the type of corks, but it can be anywhere from 12 cents to 15 cents.

Sean Sullivan 21:43
And I’m wondering, are you screening specifically for TCA? Or are there other molecules that you look at as well when you’re doing that one by one?

Carlos de Jesus 21:51
TCA is a great proxy for everything else that we don’t want to have in a cork stopper. So if you’re able to screen out TCA then almost by default, you’re also able to screen out other compounds that should not be there. But that’s really Paolo’s territory.

Dr. Paolo Lopes 22:10
Exactly, Carlos. It’s the TCA it’s the best marker of a faulty cork. So in the NDTech you are screening just TCA because you know if you be removing taint corks with TCA, so we know that you will be removing other contaminants that eventually could be present in the cork as well.

Sean Sullivan 22:35
So in 2018, Amorim announced that it was planning to eliminate cork taint in the next series of years, how were you able to make that commitment?

Carlos de Jesus 22:44
Well, it was not an easy promise to keep considering all that happened during 2020, all the obstacles. It would always be a difficult task. But you know, that’s the kind of demands that we have within the company in terms of quality, in terms of research, development, innovation. António Amorim, the chairman and CEO, made that promise publicly about 24 months before so we needed to deliver. Again, it was not easy, but the focus of the team, the determination of everybody involved, that promise had been made. It was our 150th anniversary, we could not think of a better of a better gift for everybody inside and outside the company, for all our stakeholders, internal and external stakeholders, than to be able to reach the end of 2020 and said yes, we have definitely defeated TCA in our different families of corks. Not just on the microglomerated cork stoppers, which we have done years before, but the all important natural cork stopper family that that was still out there with the performance that did not allow us to say we have effectively TCA yet, so it had to be done and it was done.

Sean Sullivan 23:59
And so earlier this year, you announced that all all of the Amorim corks now were going to go through a process that will remove cork taint and other contaminants. Talk to us a bit about how that process works.

Dr. Paolo Lopes 24:11
So this process is called Naturity and it is a result of five years of research and development. The NDTech is a process that I explained to you. It’s a process that removes contaminated corks. Here it’s not about that. It’s to remove the TCA out of the cork. It’s really a decontamination technology and it is based on the thermal disruption by using some pressure variation. So you are creating conditions to in terms of temperature and pressure to remove in a very effective way the TCA out of the cork. At the normal atmospheric conditions it will take like to vaporize the TCA out of the cork or any kind of material around more than 200 degrees Celsius of temperature, that obviously you cannot use those kind of conditions. But we managed to create, by playing with some physics laws, we managed to to get some specific conditions where we’re able to remove it at the very smooth conditions of temperature at temperatures below 50 degrees Celsius of temperature. And this removes TCA, but TCA is one of the most difficult compounds to extract out of the cork material, you also are able to remove other contaminants as well. Because those contaminants are much more volatile than TCA and therefore they leave the cork first. So at the end of the day, you’ll be removing TCA, but you also remove other compounds, and therefore you’ll be creating a much more neutral and almost genius sensory profile for the cork stopper that are treated with this Naturity process.

Sean Sullivan 26:04
And I’m assuming this is being done on a very large batch basis at the point at which the stoppers have already been created. Is that correct?

Dr. Paolo Lopes 26:14
Correct. It’s relatively early in the process if you are familiar with with the process, after the punching, you are grading the cork. The first grading of the corks and immediately we’ll apply this kind of treatment to the cork. Because by doing that, in a relatively early step, you will be ensuring that all natural cork stoppers will be treated with this process.

Sean Sullivan 26:45
So having done this and knowing that you have the NDTech technology, I’m assuming you kind of tested to make sure it was accomplishing what you thought it was once you had done it. Is that true?

Dr. Paolo Lopes 27:01
Yeah, so actually, today you even use NDTech to control the effectiveness of each treatment that you are doing, each batch that we are using cork, we are controlling with it with the NDTech. So this will be applied to all corks as I mentioned, but you still have in we’ll be offering the NDTech line because the NDTech line, it’s the I should say almost the full perfection in terms of guarantee in terms of the TCA. This technology, in my opinion, will solve the problem. But as any kind of technology will have certainly its limitations. And with this we don’t have the 100% guarantee that the cork would not be contaminated. This will be totally residual, but with the NDTech technology, NDTech line we will be able to provide this kind of individual guarantee.

Sean Sullivan 27:59
And if I’m understanding properly regarding the NDTechs, those are those are assuring that there is no more than point five parts per trillion TCA. Is that correct?

Dr. Paolo Lopes 28:10
Correct. Correct, which is the limit today, which is pretty much eliminated that any kind of laboratory equipment of gas chromatography is able to to see the TCA, if you can say like that. To detect the TCA.

Carlos de Jesus 28:26
It’s also important to underline that the level of 0.5 nanograms is well below what the human threshold for perception is. So we are erring on the side of caution here. But I think that’s clearly today, the right was the right option to take.

Sean Sullivan 28:49
We talked a little bit or briefly mentioned micro agglomerated corks, which are kind of composite corks made of ground up different cork pieces and then kind of reconstituted, you also made an announcement about reducing TCA levels in micro agglomerated corks as well. Talk to us a little bit about what that looks like and also just for how those corks are made for people who may not be familiar with them.

Dr. Paolo Lopes 29:13
So, micro agglomerated corks are pretty much made with granules. But that produces from leftovers of the production of the cork discs or not the whole cork, the natural cork stoppers. So you use those raw materials to grind it and then to use those granules to produce micro agglomerated corks using a binder that you should use. In our case you have our neutral cork range that have more than 80% of cork, and the remaining 19% or something like that, which is the binder, the foodgrade binder that we use. So this is pretty much which is the let’s say the most natural micro agglomerated that exists in the market with this recipe that we use. So on those kinds of corks, the granules, since a couple of years, you already guaranteed that the level of TCA was below the 0.5 nanograms per liters using the technology that we developed 10 years ago or 15 years ago, named ROSA, that it’s pretty much treat the granules with water steam. But we felt the need to go even further in terms of the technology to remove the TCA and to have more raw material available to produce those kinds of corks. And therefore, we decided to develop a new system, which we call it Xpür that is based on supercritical treatment, CO2 supercritical treatment, a new system that is based on the technologies already known since the ’50s, to remove contaminants or to extract specific compounds out of natural materials. And you took this principle, this technology, and we developed some kind of unique patent process, to remove the TCA in a very effective way out of the cork grandules. However, this technology has already been used either in cork industry or in other industries. However, this the conventional approach that those industries have, in terms of the CO2 supercritical was quite conventional, and quite time consuming and energy costly. So they were effective, but highly inefficient. So we were able to develop a new process based on the same principle that is effective, but it’s specially highly efficient in terms of energy, in terms of the solvents that you use, and it all was to obtain the same kind of result as the conventional process.

Sean Sullivan 32:19
So essentially, you’ve kind of enhanced your ability to remove contaminants and also kind of lowered the overall energy footprint of doing so as well, if I’m understanding correctly.

Carlos de Jesus 32:33
That is correct. But let me let me add something to what Paulo was saying. It’s also crucial here that the system… so we grabbed something that existed, we brought it into the 21st century, that’s great. But the practical impact of that is—one of the practical impacts of that, in addition to much lower energy needs, it’s also the fact that it allows us to have the highest percentage of real cork in each one of these micro agglomerated corks. It allows us to maintain—this is critical—the inherent elasticity of cork structuer nature. We allowed to keep those physical mechanical properties indexed and we don’t need to add any more chemical trickery to the process. And that is very, very important competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Sean Sullivan 33:26
You talked a little bit about that supercritical CO2. For people who might not be familiar with that, give us just kind of a high level of that means.

Dr. Paolo Lopes 33:36
Well, the supercritical CO2, it’s a different state. So you know, the state solid, liquid and gas. So supercritical CO2, it’s a different state. It makes the best of the gas state and the liquid liquid one. Virtually any kind of compound is able to be at its supercritical level, once you put using pressure and temperature to put specific compounds in a supercritical state. In the case of CO2, that it’s the most use solvent in the supercritical fluids. When you use temperatures above 72 degrees Celsius are pressures above 72, 73 bars of pressure and temperatures above 32 degrees Celsius of temperature. And on that state then it’s quite interesting because you developed a solvent with different levels of density, and by playing with the temperature and the pressure, you could fine tune in tune the extraction capacity of this CO2 and you are able to be more or less selective in terms of the compounds that you want to extract out of the material. And this one is one of the secrets of our technology that we are able to create very specific conditions to remove just compounds like TCA and other contaminants without affecting physical and mechanical speaking the cork granules.

Sean Sullivan 35:26
So taken together then in the last series of years, we’ve got the NDTech, which is the one by one screening of the corks, we’ve got the naturity which is the process to remove TCA and other contaminants from natural corks, and then the Xpur process for the micro agglomerative corks based on all these advancements, when do you expect to have eliminated cork taint from all of your products?

Carlos de Jesus 35:57
Well, I think as soon as the new material, the new processes start started going into the existing stock. It’s just a matter of weeks—eight weeks, seven, eight weeks, I’ll be able to tell you exactly when. But the processes are on, the things are rolling. Now we just need to clear this talk and go through it. So that’s a relatively quick process.

Sean Sullivan 36:24
Yeah, so within within 2021 every stopper that would come out of Amorim, you would expect to TCA free, then?

Carlos de Jesus 36:33
Oh, yes, absolutely. Yeah, that was that was the promise that I that I alluded to a little while ago. That’s what we wanted to achieve. That’s what the technology allows us to to do.

Sean Sullivan 36:44
Excellent. Thank you so much for for taking the time here today. I really appreciate it.

Carlos de Jesus 36:49
Thank you for having us.

Dr. Paolo Lopes 36:50
Thank you very much.

Sean Sullivan 36:56
I’m here today with Denis van Roey and Stéphane Vidal. For people who may not be familiar with Vinventions give us a little bit of background about the company, kind of when when you started and what’s your focus has been?

Denis van Roey 37:08
Yes, sure. Vinventions was set up in in 2015 on the foundations of Nomacorc. Nomacorc was created more than 20 years ago, and with vision to become the most innovative and sustainable supplier of closure solutions for the wine industry. And all the closure technologies of Vinventions are supported by a unique and neurological expertise and that’s very important. developed through serious investments in wine science for now more than 20 years. Vinventions was actually created on a revolutionary innovation. And now he’s developing closure solutions dedicated exclusively to the wine industry. And that’s what makes our company unique in the market.

Sean Sullivan 37:57
So you talked a little bit about the the Nomacorc as an alternative stopper, and it’s kind of having this 20 year history. Talk to us about kind of how that stopper kind of came about and what issues the original closure was looking to address.

Denis van Roey 38:14
Yeah, and the Noma core closures were originally designed to increase the performance of the closures. That was really the starting point of the company and to solve two main issues—and you have to think 20 years ago—two main issues linked to the natural corks. Namely the cork taint and the bottle to bottle variation. And today still, Nomacorc are the sole real TCA free closures. And these closures are sensory neutral, allowing, of course, the best respect of aromatic profiles of the different types of wines.

Sean Sullivan 38:55
And talk to me a little bit about kind of how that stopper is produced and that looks like.

Unknown Speaker 39:01
Yeah, that’s that’s one of the of the things that are unique at Nomacorc of inventions. So the Nomacorc closures are produced using a co-extrusion technology. That means that the closures are produced without any solvent or glue. It’s a continuous co-extrusion process that guarantees that all the Nomacorc closures have exactly the same formula and exactly the same properties. So Nomacorc ensures, of course, the best bottle to bottle consistency. And that’s a property that is a consequence of the co-extrusion process. So that means that with Nomacorc, that was the end of the sporadic spoilage that can frequently be seen with natural corks or microaggro corks. And it is also a first important aspect of system ability so you avoid waste of wine, you avoid waste of bottles, waste of flat labels, of capsules and, of course, corks.

Sean Sullivan 40:12
And for people who may not be familiar with that kind of co-extrusion process, what exactly does that look like? And how do you how do you accomplish that? And what is the kind of end result that you you end up with?

Stéphane Vidal 40:26
Okay, so like, like Tony stated in his introduction, in fact, we were first thinking about performance. So on top of being TCA free and highly consistent throughout co-extrusion, we can create different types of Nomacorc closures that offers a full range of oxygen permeability. So the different oxygen ingress of the range of closures that we are putting on the market today have been determined thanks to our academic network with wine science institute’s around the world. And with Nomacorc, we have the possibility, in fact, to propose oxygen ingress that would fit perfectly the different wine type requirements in terms of optimal development or evolution that say, of the wine and intended shelf life. So our numerous customers are, in fact, using this oxygen management asset of Nomacorc to allow their wine to develop as they intended. They created the wines, they wanted the wine to evolve in such and such a way, and thanks to the Nomacorc technology, we can really accompany the wine development. And I want also to mention another element of Nomacorc, or another advantage of the Nomacorcs, is that they never break. So for the end consumer opening a bottle, it’s very easy. They’re never disappointed by any, breaking off of the cork. And so you can just focus on enjoying the wine as you as you pour it in your glass.

Sean Sullivan 42:00
So you’ve got this, you’ve got this alternative closure, it’s TCA free, you’ve got consistency across the closure, which can obviously be a concern with natural cork as well. And then you’ve got the ability to control oxygen exposure as well. That’s a lot of strong advantages. Talk to us a little bit about the the green line for Nomacorc. I understand that it’s made from sugarcane. How do you how do you make a wine stopper from sugarcane?

Stéphane Vidal 42:33
Yeah, it sounds a bit weird, huh? But indeed, we started in 2011, as the really the first ones to start using bio-sourced renewable materials to produce our Nomacorc green line. Sugarcane, in fact, became the source of our new raw material. And what it is based upon is very simple. In fact, we are we are using sugar to transform it into bio-alcohol, and this bio-alcohol is then transformed into renewable polymers that are used to make the Nomacorc closures. So in fact, we are replacing the fossil polymers, or fossil-based polymers that we were using previously. And what is also important for you to have in mind is that since its introduction in 2011, the green line keeps growing every year in the marketplace. So this is really encountering a lot of success in the marketplace in the wine industry.

Sean Sullivan 43:34
You talked a little bit earlier about sustainability. Talk to us about how kind of using sugarcane for the green line helps from a sustainability perspective.

Denis van Roey 43:46
Yeah, that’s a good question. And because of course, it’s not obvious to connect synthetics and sustainability. And the green line is a line of high performance system of closures. Indeed, we are certified zero carbon footprint. If you take a classic for example, which is in the middle of the range, we even have a minus two grams of CO2 per cork. This is of course, extremely important for the problem of climate change. However, as you know, sustainability is done only around carbon footprint. As we mentioned before, with the synthetic green line corks, we can significantly reduce the waste from the faulty wine. So we reduce waste. We also have a very low water footprint. And that’s thanks to the coextrusion process. And we have also launched a range of product which is ready to be recycled. And therefore, if you look to the entire sustainability balance, the degree line is extremely favorable.

Sean Sullivan 45:01
Yeah, so as you were saying it’s not only good from a sustainability point of view, but actually has a negative carbon footprint, if I’m understanding correctly. Yes?

Denis van Roey 45:15
This is correct. This is correct.

Sean Sullivan 45:18
And one of the things I’m most impressed by with the Nomacorc stoppers is that they, they can look so much like a natural cork. I’ve often shown them to people and they’ve been surprised when I tell them that it’s not actually a natural cork. How have you managed to accomplish that over time?

Stéphane Vidal 45:35
Well, Sean thanks a lot for saying that. That’s really cool, because this is really what we are targeting. So we talked about high performance, we talked about sustainability. We can say that design is the sub-pillar of our product development strategy. So through the mastering of co-extrusion, you know, making it the cells as small as possible so you can not detect them with your naked eye, the technologies of printing that we that we are developing, and some of them are patented. The finishing, you know, by chamfering the closures, etc. allows us to create closures that have the look and feel of natural corks, actually. And so the green line displays a traditional look, that is, at least we believe, and we have elements to say that an end consumer will not pick the difference. So opening the bottle will not be any issue for the for the consumer opening a bottle with with a green line. If the consumer is used to natural corks, let’s say.

Sean Sullivan 46:42
And, Stéphane, you talked a little bit of about kind of the role of oxygen ingress in the wine and the wine development. I know that the oxygen transfer rate is is something that those of us in the industry talk a good bit about and how that plays a role in the development of wine overall. Talk about the different options that Nomacorc has for controlling the exchange of oxygen and also a little bit of measuring the exchange of oxygen, because I know you do some work on that as well.

Stéphane Vidal 47:12
Yeah, and honestly and without any any pretension, we have demonstrated the true influence OTR on wine development. And actually, when I joined the Nomacorc company before it was called the Vinventions in 2007, that was really something that I had to focus on. Make sure that we can really explain and understand the science behind the development of wine exposed to oxygen. And thanks to that, we could really look at different types of wine, and understand really the range of OTR that we need. And we created the Select series, what we call the Select series. It’s a series of closures that are belonging to the green line of closures that are done specially for the winemakers, so that when we talk to winemakers, going through some sort of questionnaire. What have you done in terms of winemaking? What do you expect in terms of shelf life? What is the distribution network of the wine? Are you going to export it long distance or is it for the domestic market? And things like this, and we take all this information into account to propose the best OTR and also oxygen permeability. And with this, we can really target the right audience to the right one. And that’s very important that at the end of the day, you know, we are covering a range of permeability of oxygen that is already in the kingdom of the natural cork, if you will. But it’s like we have sliced this kingdom in very small and targeted OTR numbers. So we can target an OTR and give all the bottles the same amount of oxygen. So all the bottles are the same in the end. So it’s the end of having one bottle out of six or out of 12 like in the US, you know in your case, that is turning a little bit weird compared to the others. So we are really addressing consistency, bottle to bottle as well.

Sean Sullivan 49:25
Yeah, I think one thing that people might not necessarily think about when they they think about wine is that for younger wines and younger release wines and wines that go more quickly to market, you actually want a little bit more oxygen on those wines, potentially, to help them develop a little bit more quickly. Whereas a wine that obviously you’re going to lay down for 5, 10, 15, 20 years, you have a different perspective on the amount of oxygen that you want in. So what you’re doing kind of allows a high level of control over that. Thinking about ageability. How does this Nomacorc perform from an ageability perspective.

Stéphane Vidal 50:04
Yeah, so so that, you know, when I, when I hear this question I want to make like a dual answer. The first, the properties of the closure themselves will remain the same. So there’s no evolution of the technology and of the properties of the closures. They will remain the same if they are with an OTR target and we stay with this OTR target all their life. Okay, so no degradation of the properties. On the wine ageability aspect, I’m really a believer of the fact that you cannot say this closure is good for 10 years, this closure is good for 25 years. For me, it’s nonsense. When you know, the importance of the potential for wine to evolve. And to your point, Sean, before you said, okay, you know, not not all the wines are made equal. There are some that are, let’s say, first rotation wines, others are iconic wines that have to be cellared for 20 years. You don’t apply the same thing. So the wine is built, created completely differently. So it will withstand more or less. It will come with more or less oxygen, you need to know that you need to know when you are going to propose an OTR. And another aspect that is super important is the bottling conditions. And this is also why we developed at Vinventions, Wine Quality Solutions, which is another of our off our brands, to really control and monitor how much oxygen you dropped into the bottle the day of bottling. Because in one day, you can damage the wine ageability in the equivalent of two to three years, depending on the wines. So it’s very important to take all these parameters together. And then you can think about something. And this is why we believe that we need to engage seriously with winemakers, understand what they want. And we have solutions. We have solutions for them. But not thinking about this closure is 10 years and in this closure is three years—no, this is not the way it works honestly. The situation is a little bit more complex. I don’t know if I made myself clear, but this is something that is very strong belief of the Vinventions positioning on the marketplace.

Sean Sullivan 52:22
And I know we’ve talked about using sugarcane for creation of the Nomacorc stoppers. The last I talked with people at Vinventions, I know you were also looking at other products, such as leftover grape skins and grape seeds. How has that progressed?

Stéphane Vidal 52:39
Yeah, well in fact, we always investigating different parallel, innovative path to develop the Nomacorc line. And indeed we investigated the possibility to replace a sugarcane. In fact, it was more using, you know, wine alcohol instead of sugarcane alcohol to try to develop a product I guess. However, since recyclability appears to be a much more fundamental challenge for our customers, we have decided to embark in another project. And we are happy to share with you that we are going to launch in April 2021, what we call it the Nomacorc blue line. So what the blue line is about, this is using circular polymers obtained from recycled waste plastics. So for us, this is a very strong first step towards circular economy. So if you will, with the sugarcane sourcing we have addressed our raw material sourcing, and we are now initiating new actions to address the end of life of our product. So we want to be, you know, responsible for the full, entire life of our product. And to circle back to the previous question that you asked. Our closures are made recycle-ready. Now we will use recycled plastics. And like Denis mentioned, we are also having a core group initiative that is aimed to close the loop in the future by collecting, sorting, recycling our closures into new closures. So doing so, we reinforce our strong belief that instead of being an issue, you know, we can be a solution. And so again, we want to address sourcing, we want to address end of life and make sure we are fully compliant to the commitment that we have and that we expressed by signing the European and U.S. plastic pact to accelerate the shift to water reuse and recycling of plastics and limit the use of fossil fuel materials.

Sean Sullivan 54:52
You talked a little bit about the the blue line that’s coming, it sounds like in a couple months now. Are there other things that Vinventions is working on that you think are important for our listeners to know about?

Stéphane Vidal 55:02
Yes, so we have launched in Europe, what we call sugar. So, sugar is a is a micro natural closure. This is part of our innovation and sustainability journey. So, opposite to the micro agglomerated closures, which are all based on prewritten glue. Sugar is made by mixing coke granulates with biosource and biodegradable binder. So, thanks to our co-extrusion process, we can eliminate the use of prewritten that does not allow closures to be recycled into closures again, and we see we want to loop, we want to loop, we want to close the cycle of our closures’ life all the time. And sugar is recyclable, but it’s also a step toward biodegradable closures. So we are really looking to create biodegradable closures. So as for all Vinventions closures, sugar is cork taint free, of course, and highly consistent as well. But always something new in terms of the materials that we are using to stay at the forefront of the sustainability journey that we embarked upon. Now more than 15 years ago.

Sean Sullivan 56:19
Yeah, so people for people who might not be familiar with the micro agglomerative closures, they’re essentially kind of ground up pieces of cork and then they have some type of binding so you’ve got to kind of a unique binding substance that’s putting them together. Thinking about the industry more broadly, the closure industry, what do you feel like the the kind of challenges are next for the industry or what other kind of things are you thinking about at this point?

Denis van Roey 56:49
Well, I think, and we all believe at Vinventions that the sustainability aspect of our wine closures will become increasingly increasingly prominent, especially for the closure selection by the customer. And and I mean, the global sustainability of the product, which is not only carbon footprint, but also water footprint, is increasingly important for for many countries, and of course, the recyclability of our product. And I have to say that we see, year after year, that our customers are sharper in these topics, and they will need all the sustainable claims to be verified. And more important, backed up with data. They don’t eat everything. And this trend is totally consistent also with the increased success of of organic wines. So, of course, in our company, we take sustainability very seriously. We have a highly experienced head of sustainability, for example. And we go further and further in transparency and data basically. We have an entire cross functional sustainability task force, which support all the initiatives we have in sustainability. And when we speak about sustainability, it’s sustainability of products, it’s of course sustainability of processes and it’s also sustainability for people.

Sean Sullivan 58:24
Excellent. Well, Denis and Steph, thanks very much for being here today, and then telling us about Vinventions.

Stéphane Vidal 58:31
Thank you so much.

Denis van Roey 58:31
Thank you, Sean.

Lauren Buzzeo 58:35
So there you have it. Not all corks are created equally. Although there are common goals for the future of the industry, including improved sustainability, consistency, and overall quality. Through exciting forward thinking innovations like those discussed today. The future is looking quite bright and also very possibly cork taint free. Subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast on iTunes, Google Podcast Stitcher, or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you liked today’s episode, we’d love to read your review and hear what you think. And hey, why not tell your wine loving friends to check us out too. You can also drop us a line at podcast at winemag.com for more wine reviews, recipes guides, deep dives and stories visit Wine Enthusiast online at winemag.com and connect with us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @WineEnthusiast. And check out the February/March 2021 New Now issue out on newsstands now or digitally available via Zinnio and Apple news plus, with additional New Now stories and original reporting on winemag.com. The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is produced by Lauren Buzzeo and Jenny Groza. Until next episode, cheers.

Published on February 17, 2021
Topics: Podcast