Most of us are used to popping the cork when it’s time to open a bottle of wine. However, this trusty wooden stopper and cap is facing a credible threat today. Surprisingly, the industry is looking at one particular group: Millennial wine drinkers.
Because of technology and their’ love for almost everything techy, the millennials are slowly embracing screw caps and plastic bottle stoppers over the traditional cork.
History’s Favorite Topper and Closer
For more than 400 years, cork has been the go-to choice of winemakers for bottle stoppers. The material has been used as a wine stopper for as long as we’ve had wine. Historians trace it back to the Greeks, who used the spongy material from the bark of the cork tree to cover their wine jugs. Following their lead, the Romans also used the material for their jugs, bottles, and containers.
When it comes to champagne corks, one legend has it that it was the monk Dom Pérignon who first used it to seal his champagne’s fizz and flavour, after being inspired by Spanish travelers who used tree bark to seal their water gourds.
But regardless of who first thought of using and who popularised wine corks, the invention has become an almost universal part of the wine packaging process.
The material gained popularity because it was great at resisting moisture and rotting, helping wine age, and giving the bottle an airtight, leak-proof seal.
At the start of the 21st century, however, a few problems regarding the spongy material got uncorked. Cork taint is a phenomenon generally associated with spoiled wine, where the wine has an undesirable flavour and aroma often imparted to the liquid after it comes in contact with the cork.
The primary cause for the spoilage is the presence of the chemical compounds guaiacol, geosmin, 2-methylisoborneol (MIB), octen-3-ol, octen-3-one, and the most important chemicals 2, 4, 6-trichloroanisole (TCA).
TCA, however, isn’t limited to cork. It’s also present in other wood, soil, water, and even fruits and vegetables. This means spoilage could also be caused by other factors, such as the storage of wine in the barrel.
In 2005, Wine Spectator tested 2,800 wine bottles for TCA. Seven percent (7%) of the sample pool tested positive. For consumes, the chances of buying spoiled wine was relatively low, but the possibility is still there.
The problem weighs heavier for winemakers, whose brand and reputation are on the line with every bottle that bears their name. A single bad bottle could ruin years of carefully-grown and protected reputation and undermine a vintner’s business.
Because of this constant threat, many winemakers dropped cork and looked for other, more affordable closures, such as aluminum screw caps and plastic plugs.
A Long Way Back to the Top
Demand for cork took a hit after this, especially when it came to price. By 2010, most wineries in Australia and New Zealand switched to screw-cap closures, as importing cork from the Mediterranean become costly for some small and medium wineries.
Today, screw-caps have all but conquered both markets, overtaking corks to become the most common means of sealing bottles.
While it has regained some footing in market share in recent years, the cork industry is still fighting to come out on top.
As of early 2015, aluminum screw caps have taken over 20% of the world’s wine-closure market and plastic stoppers with 10%. By some industry estimates, cork has lost an estimated 40% of the global wine-closure market since the 1990s.That’s a signficant drop that’s most apparent in low-priced wines ($10 and below).
Where the Millennials Come in
Industry experts predict the cork industry will continue on a slow, steady decline. This is due in large part to millennial wine drinkers and their preferences when it comes to choosing and consuming vino.
A 2012 study by the Wine Market Council showed that 65% of older millennials (those over 25) drink wine everyday or at least several times a week. Fifty percent (50%) of younger millennials (21-25) also belong to the same category.
When it comes to purchasing behaviour, the report showed that about two-thirds of millennials ‘frequently or occasionally’ buy unfamiliar wine brands.” Another 60% chose specific wines for their “fun and contemporary-looking” labels.
In contrast, the type of bottle closure wasn’t an important factor in their purchases. When it was, millennials went for the bottles that did not need a corkscrew to open.
The Case for Cork
Even with the threat risks of cork taint, cork is arguably still the best option that can preserve fine wines for years.
Case in point, 168 bottles of champagne were salvaged from a shipwreck in the Baltic Sea. The 170-year-old bubblies still tasted incredible, largely due to the cork’s sealing qualities.
As an answer to the cork taint scare, the industry has stepped up their game to improve their product and its reputation. Cork producers have invested in new equipment and better processes, which contributed to a large drop in tainted wine.
Audit results by the Cork Quality Council show that as of March 2015, there’s been a 95% decrease in cork TCA content since 2001.
When it comes to the environmental factor, cork is the more eco-friendly option, as the production of cork wine stoppers is a “carbon-negative” process. In the Mediterranean (where most of the world’s cork come from), there are roughly 7 million acres of cork forest, which offsets about 20 million tons of carbon dioxide every year.
More importantly, these trees do not need to be cut down to make cork closures, since they only need the bark– cork production is completely sustainable.
Screw On or Off?
In the end, the arguments for and against corks come down to the type of wine and what vintners think is best for their blend. In part, it also comes down to proper storage.
For the bottles at home, be sure to store the wine properly in the fridge, the wine cabinet, or in your mini cellar. For your larger wine collections, one of the best options is to pass it on to the care of experts.
At Singapore Wine Vault, we have climate-controlled, insulated, and guarded cellars for any size wine portfolio. We take care of your prized collection so you can sit back and relax knowing it is kept at optimum conditions. And it will be ready for whenever you want to open them.