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Cork industry unveils new campaign

The cork industry has just mounted a new campaign: I Love Natural Cork. This invites us to pledge to buy more wine sealed with natural cork stoppers.

jilly goolden

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

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

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

In this month’s Decanter magazine, for example, Vanya Cullen of Cullen Wines, one of Australia’s most celebrated wineries, says, ‘Todeliberately kill wines with cork taint or the possibility of oxidation goes against the culture of biodynamics…’

Winemakers like Peter Gago at Australia’s venerable Penfolds, makers of Grange, agree that cork is best for the ‘small niche’ oftop reds that may be cellared for many decades. ‘We still admire the gracefulaging of such wines in cork-sealed bottles over time.’

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

The irony of the situation is that the cork industry has hada good deal of success in making corks more reliable. It’s impossible to getabsolute figures for corked wine. At the Decanter World Wine Awards, out of over 10,000 wines tasted we expect a 5-6% rate of corked wines. At the otherend of the argument, cork producer Amorim – and some independent experts – putthe figure at 1%. Most without a vested interest in cork will back the higherfigure.

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 tell tale mustiness that is cork taint), rates of corked wines are falling, and natural cork now has some influential figures inthe 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 hamfisted attempts to appeal to consumers’ green conscience, are guaranteed toput 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 agigantic cork in London’s Hyde Park last week.

On decanter.com she brings out the tired old syllogism that as cork is natural and screwcap manmade, 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 veryshaky ground here, using emotional consumer communication to supporta product that is for most wines inferior,’ Steve Smith, winemaker at premium New Zealand producer Craggy Range told me.

It must be especially galling for producers like Cullen, whose sustainable credentials are impeccable, to be told they are complicit in the destroying of an ecosystem.

No one would argue that cork forests, which cover millionsof hectares in Portugal, southern Spain, Morocco and elsewhere in theMediterranean, support rare wildlife, and an ancient industry, should not bepreserved.

The cork industry has spent millions on investigating thecauses 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 ofmoney than using spurious ‘green’ arguments to emotionally blackmail Britishsupermarket shoppers.

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