Vine Talk: Campaign promotes wine corks over screwcaps

(Adam Lechmere is editor of,, the web arm of Decanter, the leading British wine magazine. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Bottles of sparkling wine wait for a foil cap at the Ridgeview Wine Estate in Ditchling Common, southern England February 12, 2006. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor/Files

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The cork industry has mounted a new campaign called I Love Natural Cork, that invites consumers to pledge to buy more wine sealed with natural cork stoppers.

“Natural cork in your wine bottle does more than just preserve and improve the quality and character of your wine. It preserves a centuries-long way of life in the rural communities of the Mediterranean cork oak forests, its incredible wildlife as well as the planet by absorbing CO2,” the campaign, which is backed by Britain’s Prince Charles, claims.

The statement’s sentiments are as suspect as its syntax. It demonstrates once again that the cork industry’s grasp on the realities of public relations is as shaky as ever.

Natural cork now accounts for 69 percent of the 18 billion wine closures sold last year, with screwcaps taking 11 percent and plastic corks 20 percent. Ten years ago, over 95 percent of bottles used natural cork. Natural cork is being supplanted as a stopper for all but a top tier of the most expensive wines.

The essence of the campaign is that the harvesting of cork is a sustainable practice under threat. The move to screwcaps would destroy ancient ecosystems. In short, the cork industry is appealing to our emotions to convince us to support a stopper that almost the entire wine industry agrees is not the best closure for 99 percent of wines.

It is absurd to seal a bottle that will be drunk within hours of purchase with a natural stopper that has a failure rate of between one and six percent, depending on whom you talk to. In no other industry would this be tolerated.

Winemakers like Peter Gago at Australia’s Penfolds, makers of Grange, agree that cork is best for the ‘small niche’ of top reds that may be cellared for many decades.

But Gago’s talking about less than 1 percent of wine. For the rest, a screwcap is the obvious choice.

The irony of the situation is that the cork industry has had a good deal of success in making corks more reliable. It’s impossible to get absolute figures for corked wine. Estimates range from one to six percent.

It is still an unacceptably high failure rate, but there is no doubt that due to investment in technology and research into the causes of TCA, the compound which causes the telltale mustiness that is cork taint, rates of corked wines are falling, and natural cork now has some influential figures in the UK industry backing it.

Sainsbury’s winemaker Clem Yates was recently quoted in an industry journal saying the chain was working to put more of its own label wines back under cork.

But campaigns such as I Love Natural Cork, with their attempts to appeal to consumers’ green conscience, are guaranteed to put everyone’s backs up.

The latest piece of tomfoolery had Jilly Goolden, once doyen of the British wine industry but quiet for some years, straddling a gigantic cork in London’s Hyde Park last week. On she brings out the tired old syllogism that as cork is natural and screwcap man-made, cork is better for the environment and therefore better as a wine closure. If we love the planet we should sign up to the campaign to use more cork.

This will simply not wash.

“The cork industry is on very shaky ground here, using emotional consumer communication to support a product that is for most wines inferior,” said Steve Smith, winemaker at premium New Zealand producer Craggy Range.

No one would argue that cork forests, which cover millions of hectares in Portugal, southern Spain, Morocco and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, support rare wildlife, and an ancient industry, should not be preserved.

The cork industry has spent millions on investigating the causes of cork taint. It must now spend more on diversifying and exploiting the dozens of applications this remarkable substance lends itself to, from luxury flooring to industrial insulation. That would be a far more responsible use of money than using spurious ‘green’ arguments to emotionally blackmail British supermarket shoppers.