Cork it – Carlos de Jesus, Amorim

By Jim Boyce

China’s wine market is relatively modest, but its potential is massive, thus making the cork versus screw top debate in this country a substantial one. In April, I posted about this video conference with wine maker Wolf Blass and Foster’s brand ambassador George Samios, two proponents of screw tops (thanks to ASC and Austrade for organizing it). More recently, I had a conference call with Carlos de Jesus, the communication and marketing director of major cork producer Amorim, for a much different perspective (thanks to China’s Amorim rep Ricardo Duarte for organizing it). Here are the highlights of my talk with de Jesus and his take on corks, screw tops, wine storage, the environmental impact of closures, and more.

We’ve had corked wine at numerous tastings I’ve attended in Beijing this year. Doesn’t this suggest the need for a better closure?

“As we get more scientific information, we will get better cork quality. There is a clear difference between more recent vintages that use cork treated and managed with updated technology versus those that use other cork.”

wine-word-amorim-carlos-de-jesus.JPGHe asks people to remember that not all producers are equal: “With over 600 cork companies in the world, we can’t expect them to have products of the same quality, any more than we would expect it from car companies.”

But how can I, as a consumer, know which bottles have corks from quality producers?

“If we could, we would have everything clearly marked with the Amorim logo. [To the consumer], cork that comes out of a production line with million of dollars invested [in research and development] looks exactly the same as cork from a line with zero invested. Our problem is how to articulate this with both the wine maker and, much more difficult, the million and millions of consumers.”

He cites industry consolidation as one positive trend. “Every successful industry has had this process – just think how many car companies and mobile phone manufacturers we had. Consolidation is absolutely fundamental to weeding out these [poorer] companies.”

Wine professionals say, “Store wine on its side, so the cork won’t dry out.” Don’t screw caps eliminate this necessity?

“The point is more far-reaching than simply putting a bottle on its side. We are talking about processing, handling, storage and other issues that affect all closures. Does cork face more challenges than screw tops? I don’t know. I’ve seen a lot of dented screw tops. Also, who knows what happens to horizontally stored bottles with plastic stoppers? It’s worth asking questions about plastic stoppers that we ask about screw caps, since there are probably three to four times more of them in circulation.”

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“We can’t expect to have perfection on this earth – expecting a closure to be perfect is no more realistic that expecting airplanes to never fall from the sky. But what is fundamental is to have solid risk management policies. That is the big difference between an industry like natural cork, which recognizes its problems and tries to fix them, versus the proponents for plastic corks and screw tops, who try to portray their products as flawless.”

Many wine newcomers in China don’t know how to use a corkscrew. Aren’t screw tops a good way to get them drinking wine?

“Producers of all kinds of drinks spend millions and millions of dollars on marketing to differentiate the moment of consumption, to create that feeling of drinking something special, something unlike opening a can of Coke or other common beverage. So the cork itself, the pop, that special-ness at the moment of consumption – to do away with that is to do away with something on which other industries spend a great deal of money.”

Wolf Blass and George Samios argue that wine ages under screw cap and they have samples from the 1970s to prove it. What is your reaction?

“Since the arguments for screw tops came out a few years ago, cork has improved considerably, but the laws of chemistry have not changed. Chemistry 101 says that any ongoing chemical reaction will have a different outcome if you fiddle with the influx of oxygen. To say wine will continue to evolve without oxygen, which is what you get under screw tops, is like saying you and I will continue to evolve without oxygen. Yes, we will continue to evolve, but is it in the right direction? [Laughs]

“The cork industry is accused of not being engaged in a scientific approach to this debate. But we hired the scientists, we started the research and development departments, we work with universities and scientific institutes around the world. Meanwhile, where are the scientists from the screw cap side of the debate? Let’s hear what they have to say.”

What kinds of measures are being taken to make corks more reliable?

“I want to emphasize that not all cork companies are the same – differentiation is absolutely crucial for us. At Amorim, we went back to the drawing board and looked at everything. We looked at the wood, we identified critical points for the presence of TCA (cork taint), we went into sophisticated chemical analysis and, on top of all that, we developed a reliable curative measure that attacks TCA when it exists.”

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We made major investments totaling 55 million euros since 2000, including the launching of two plants, each the size of six or seven football fields, that are critical in the prevention of TCA. Going back to the chemical analysis, the implementation of gas chromatography has one very important and positive consequence – to remove sensory analysis from the equation, to remove the human element, and to replace it with much a more sophisticated risk management tool, chemical analysis. You fast forward to 2007 and we have had our best year in sales ever. We must be doing something right.

One argument for cork is that it is more environmentally friendly. Could you elaborate on this?

People are concerned about Co2 emissions and general environmental issues, and there is one closure that addresses these best – cork. We commissioned PriceWaterhouse to do a life-cycle assessment for natural cork, screw caps, and the like, and as everyone would expect from a natural renewable material, cork came out on top.

This makes cork an increasingly appealing proposition for consumers and wineries, and especially for retailers. When large stores and retail chains start asking for a Co2 footprint for their products, who do you think is going to have the best one? This is what increasingly moves the debate, especially in the UK and the US – how to minimize the environmental footprint. Aluminum manufacturing is the most environmentally intensive industry in the world; cork is the most environmentally friendly process in the world. You get CO2 retention, anti-erosion effects, biodiversity support, and a positive social impact on small communities. How can you beat that?

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