Jan 082014
 

Nomacorc select seriesUsed for centuries, natural cork is still among the most accepted closures, especially for wines that are meant to be aged. However, natural cork’s market dominance has been waning significantly over the past 13 years. Whereas approximately 95% of all wines were bottled under a cork or cork derivative in 1999, by 2012, that figure had dropped to 56%.

In fact, cork bashing has become a popular sport, with many people decrying the high failure rate of such corks, which result in corked wines. Admittedly, no one is happy when upon opening a bottle of wine it is found to be accompanied by a musty/wet dog smell. At that point, there is no other remedy than to simply pour the wine down the drain.

For some winemakers, the incidences of cork taint and bottle variation have proved to be too much to bear. At noted Savennières producer, Domaine des Baumard, Florent Baumard had had enough and began using the Stelvin closure (aka screw caps) in 2005 for all of his still wines, including those he expected consumers to hold/age for 6-7 years. Baumard claims that having made the switch helps him to sleep better at night, particularly because the closure permits more consistency among bottles.

Similarly, Michel Laroche of Domaine Laroche starting experimenting with screw caps in 2002, having identified problems with TCA (the chemical responsible for cork taint) in 2001. Today, he offers his customers a choice of closure, with 75% of total sales bottled under screw cap. He admits that “we are breaking the rules,” but notes that with his experience, he won’t come back to promoting corks. “We love to feel young and healthy,” he says, “It is the same with wine,” stressing that screw caps keep wine fresher with more tension (read acidity). While the screw cap was not always my preferred bottle, a comparison tasting of his wines (one bottled with a screw cap and the other with a natural cork) proved his point.

Lines drawn in the sand

Not surprisingly, screw caps have been touted as the perfect alternative to natural cork, keeping the wine as fresh and fruity as the day it was bottled. But, such closures have predominantly been used for whites and rosés, which aren’t meant for aging. Early-adopters New Zealand and Australia have implemented screw caps across the board, but producers in many other countries have been reluctant to try them. Still others have outright refused to consider them as a viable option, essentially separating producers into two camps.

With this debate almost firmly centered on natural cork vs screw cap, faux corks have often been dismissed out of hand. But, it turns out that there are synthetic corks and then there are synthetic “corcs” – or, more precisely, Nomacorcs. Founded by Belgium businessman Gert Noël during the 1990s, Nomacorc produces a synthetic closure made from plastic foam. Nomacorc’s original goal was to eliminate cork taint; mission accomplished, it has now begun to focus on the integration of oxygen management with its new product line.

A brave new (wine) world

The Select Series, which debuted in 2012, permits winemakers to choose one of four models, based on their desired level of oxygen ingress over time. For example, the Select 100 permits the ingress of 1.2 mg/L of O2 in 12 months, while the Select 500 permits the ingress of 3.0 mg/L of O2 over this same period. Straddling both sides of the aisle – freshness and ageability – this new type of closure opens up an interesting world of possibilities. Consequently, when considering which Select Series product will best meet their needs, a winery can develop an integrated strategy taking into account how long it will take to get the wine into the market, how long it will sit on the shelf and when the winemaker thinks that the wine will be ready to drink, potentially prolonging the shelf life, or hastening the development, of a given product.

Nomacorc now has 13% of the closure market worldwide, with 58% of Nielsen’s Top 500 SKUs closed with a Nomacorc product. While big wineries such as Gallo, Barefoot and Yellow Tail are large accounts for the company, the adoption of Nomacorc has not been limited to commercial brands. Eberle Winery’s winemaker, Ben Mayo has been a convert since he joined the winery in 2003. The Paso Robles producer switched entirely to Nomacorc in 2002, inclusive of its Reserve-level Cabernet Sauvignon, which retails for $75.00. Equally esteemed clients include the Willamette Valley’s Ken Wright Cellars and Alsatian producer Anne Boecklin among others.

But not everyone has embraced Nomacorc. The company recognizes that consumer perception of its products as being unnatural is its biggest challenge and has gone out of its way to emphasize its commitment to sustainability in all aspects of its business practices. Further, the Classic and Select Series Nomacorcs are 100% recyclable (with #4 plastics), while its newest product, Select Bio, claims to be the “world’s first zero carbon footprint closure.” Instead of being made from petroleum-based plastics, the raw materials for Select Bio are derived from plant-based polymers.

With Nomacorc’s new approach and younger consumers’ more ready acceptance of synthetics, it will be interesting to see how the supply side reacts to these changes. While natural cork’s supremacy has indeed eroded, its future remains unclear. Only time (and marketing dollars) will tell what we find at the top of the bottle standing between us and our wine.