Malu Lambert: Can the taste of cork be eradicated forever?

Not everything is high-tech. The palates are used in the laboratory to taste the wines under different cork samples.

Cork’s funeral was held in New York City on October 2, 2002. A dark and irreverent affair, four suit-wearing pallbearers carried a steel coffin through a train terminal and up to a large, high-ceilinged bar. They placed the coffin in front of a stone fireplace and opened it. The corpse inside was Thierry Bouchon, a figurine made of corks. The name, a play on the French word for corkscrew. The funeral was hosted by chief pallbearer and confirmed iconoclast Randall Graham, founder and winemaker of Bonny Doon Vineyard in California.

He welcomed wine connoisseurs gathered at “this sincere wake for the old stinker”. Jancis Robinson MW gave a eulogy paying tribute to the many excellent qualities of cork as a means of sealing a bottle, concluding: “You had a great race, Monsieur Bouchon. The great supertanker SS Screwcap has set sail, and there will be no turning back. The stunt was followed by dinner profusely accompanied by Bonny Doon’s screw-corked wines. Following this, wine spectator gamely featured a headstone with the epitaph “Mr. Thierry Bouchon (1585-2002) known to his relatives as Corky had died after a long illness with the toxin 2,4,6-trichloroanisole implicated in his death”.

Tolling the death knell was the rise of alternative closures, which rose to prominence in an effort to combat “cork taint”; the defect at the time seemed to be happening exponentially in bottles across the world. Doomsday predictions for the cork piled up, its demise – and the corkscrew as collateral damage – seemed certain.

The battle for cork was on. Corticeira Amorim, the world’s largest cork processing group, has a turnover of approximately 800 million euros per year, with many companies operating on five continents. Founded in 1870, the Portuguese company had been comfortably ensconced in its cork throne for generations, easily controlling the monopoly of cork production and therefore the cork market.

“We had to change things, otherwise it was a dying industry,” marketing director Carlos de Jesus remarked. This missive was delivered during lunch at the Casa Natal do Comendador on the 18thand century-old family mansion that sits in the middle of one of the production facilities just outside Porto; the old rubbing against the new, as is often the case in Portugal. We had spent the morning wandering through the departments of new technologies: innovations deployed to the tune of billions of euros, developed by some of the most sought-after scientific minds in Europe. Huge investments have been invested in these various weapons in an effort to eradicate what put an end to poor old Monsieur Bouchon: 2,4,6-trichloroanisole toxin, or what is more colloquially known as “TCA”. It’s a fight they intend to win.

The term “clogged” is a misnomer underlined by Jesus. Let’s say a wine is corked in front of any Amorim acolyte and you will see a noticeable thrill. They are not wrong, it is not the cork that produces this unpleasant musty character; rather, it is a volatile compound born from the unholy trinity of plant phenols (wood), chlorine, and fungi, and it can also infest barrels, pallets, cardboard (and spread from nowhere). any of them)…although its residence of choice is unfortunately the accommodation of cork bark, soft cells.

The gauntlet thrown down by wine luminaries has been backed by growing consumer resistance – who wants to be disappointed by opening something special at the table? Amorim took up the challenge; work began in 2016, and in 2021 they launched Naturity and Xpür, technologies designed to remove detectable TCA from natural plugs as well as create a new segment of micro-agglomerated plugs, these sciences have been complemented by the ` ‘non-detectable technology’ called NDtech, which is a quality screening system that uses gas chromatographs. Incredibly accurate, individual caps are graded on an industrial scale and those containing more than 0.5 nanograms of TCA per liter are rejected.

With the smell of cork dust in the air, the screeching of grinding machines, and the constant hum of moving robotic arms, I was shown the factory floors. All elements and levels (the different grades of natural, champagne as well as conglomerate) of cork production seemed well-oiled and in perpetuity, as discs and cylinders were variously spit or churned. A few million corks are produced every day in these factories, with an average of 13 billion units per year.

In contrast to the mechanized din, in another wing were the ultra-quiet Naturity machines, lined up like space pods in stasis. This project is in collaboration with the NOVA School of Science and Technology is used for natural whole caps. It works, in simple terms, by steam cleaning (more geeky description: thermal desorption through the use of pressure, temperature, purified water and time). The method is capable of extracting over 150 volatile compounds, including TCA, resulting in cleaner cork across the board.

For micro-agglomerated closures, we turned to Xpür machines. The technology is so secret that I was only allowed to take photos from a certain angle of the long, submarine-like cylinders with tightly locked doors. They work by cleaning the granulated cork while preserving the intrinsic properties of the cork itself. To do this, De Jesus explains that these machines are capable of becoming “supercritical” – essentially creating another state of matter; not a solid, liquid, gas or plasma, something else entirely that flushes the TCA straight from the cap with a supercritical “fluid”.

Back at lunch, steaming bacalhau piled on my plate by a butler in full dress, the conversation had turned more positive from the previous anecdotes about cork corpses. Their mission, De Jesus said, is to “eradicate the TCA smell forever,” at least with all Amorim branded products, a promise they are fulfilling overall with these innovative new technologies. Rapidly rising numbers support this claim, from 2021 sales have increased by 13% to over 830 million euros per year. De Jesus acknowledged that the endless thirst for Prosecco also contributes to this, attracting new consumers with a product that is traditionally sealed with a cork stopper.

“Cork is also more environmentally friendly than other stoppers,” he pointed out. “Not only do cork oaks regenerate the necessary bark every nine years, without it being necessary to fell the tree; natural cork is also sustainable in that it is biodegradable and has generally been found to leave a lower carbon footprint than screw caps or plastic caps.

However, that’s not to say the TCA smell can’t still infect those plugs, once they leave the factory gates it’s open season…the volatile compound could be hiding in a cellar , bottling plant or pallet near you.

But let’s just say that with the old stench (it’s TCA, not cork) mostly dealt with, the only question I’m left with – in the old screw cap vs cork debate – is a matter of style. The latter lets micro-quantities of oxygen into the wine, aiding its evolution, while the other is anaerobic, making it ideal for storage. So subjectively the battle rages on – which do you prefer?

  • Malu Lambert is a freelance food and wine journalist who has written for numerous local and international titles. She is a WSET graduate student and won Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer of the Year 2019. She also owns storytelling agency Fable, which works with high-end food, wine and hospitality brands. , telling their unique stories in a variety of digital formats. Follow her on Twitter: @MaluLambert

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