Portugal's New Twist on the Cork Industry

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JOERG MODROW / LAIF / REDUX

Sustaining Portugal's cork industry generates 60,000 jobs and $1 billion in annual exports

The axes that can be heard in the summer months throughout the cork-oak woodlands, or montados, of Portugal's Alentejo region have long fallen silent. The annual harvest is over, and the trees that have yielded their bark are beginning the decadelong process of regenerating their corky cladding. Across the vineyards of Southern Europe, the final grapes have been picked for the new vintage. One day the products of these two harvests should come together in a wine bottle.

Or will they? These are uncertain times for cork producers in Portugal and the Mediterranean countries that are home to the cork oak, Quercus suber. For centuries, cork from the region's 6.7 million acres (2.7 million hectares) of cork forests has been the world's wine-bottle stopper of choice. But in recent years, alternative closures like metal screw caps and synthetic stoppers have boosted their market share and, more important, convinced wine drinkers that a screw top was not the mark of plonk. Lower costs helped the upstarts. So too did industry complacency regarding cork's responsibility for "taint," a malodorous malady caused by the contaminant TCA that can result in ruinous wine spoilage rates.

With $2 billion in annual revenue at stake, cork producers have scrambled to invest in new equipment, improve quality and develop treatments to eradicate the moldy-smelling menace. They've also mounted a counterattack, using the assertion that cork is greener and more sustainable than other closures. Yet cork's future is far from certain. Says wine expert George Taber, author of To Cork or Not to Cork (and a former business editor of this magazine): "The screw-cap juggernaut has slowed, but it hasn't stopped." Cork alternatives make up about a third of the 18 billion or so closures used worldwide. Australia's industry is now 85% screw cap, and close to half of U.S. wineries have opted for cork alternatives.

The good news for cork is that many wine drinkers — notably in the U.S., which is set to become the world's largest wine market — still equate cork with quality. "People also like the cork-pulling ritual," says Taber. It's a ritual that can help save the planet, say cork's proponents.

Natural cork, it's claimed, has a much smaller carbon footprint than its synthetic competitors, while cork forests sequester an estimated 10 million tons of CO2 annually. "Cork fits right in with the wine industry's growing interest in sustainability," says Peter Weber, executive director of the Cork Quality Council (CQC), a cork producers' association.

Cork's eco-credentials have been trumpeted before. A 2006 World Wildlife Fund report highlighted the importance of cork forests and warned that a valuable habitat for endangered species and migratory birds was under threat. So far doomsday has been delayed. "We are not losing forests in Portugal," concedes WWF forest-program coordinator Luis Silva. "But we still face a huge challenge to ensure that the older forests are better managed." Falling prices, he warns, could force marginal producers out of business.

Cork's competitors suggest that the threat was less eco than economic. Simon Waller of Supreme Corq, which makes synthetic stoppers, claims the Portuguese industry is exploiting the montados more intensively than ever before, which may be hurting the local ecosystem. "Like any other business, cork production is about making money," says Waller. "The environmental equation is not a simple one." Most cork stoppers, he points out, are bits of cork held together with a binder as synthetic as anything his company uses.

If the cork stopper — which accounts for 70% of cork output despite industry efforts to diversify — goes the way of the buggy whip, Portugal's already shaky economy could get even shakier. With more than half of global cork production, Portugal needs the 60,000 jobs and $1 billion in annual export earnings the industry generates.

To protect it, the Portuguese government is helping the Portuguese Cork Association and the CQC finance a campaign dubbed "100% Cork" that aims to build consumer support for cork and encourage vintners, restaurants and retailers to switch back. Underpinning the campaign is a 126-page report on the environmental impact of cork stoppers vs. that of aluminum and plastic closures, prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers at the behest of Portugal's Amorim, the world's leading cork producer. The peer-reviewed report concludes that screw caps and plastic stoppers release 10 to 24 times as much greenhouse gas over their life cycles as cork and require up to five times the nonrenewable energy to produce.

This argument may be gaining traction in the U.S., where corks will account for 56% of closures this year, compared with 50% in 2008. "Sustainability issues aside, for winemakers, corks clearly add value," says Carlos de Jesus, Amorim's marketing director. The converts include Rutherford Wine Co. in California's Napa Valley. The organic winery recently switched back to 100% cork. "They've solved the TCA problem," explains winemaker Steve Rued. Add in the eco-advantages and cork, he says, becomes "as close as we're going to get to a perfect stopper." With converts like that, the CQC's Weber is hopeful that cork can regain share. "Our message of cork's environmental advantages has struck a chord with wine drinkers," he claims.

Maybe, but in a value-driven environment, many consumers no longer care. If the price is right, so is the closure. The good news for all closure producers is that global wine consumption shows no sign of slowing, which means ever more bottles to stop. Wine lovers would drink to that.