Cork Quality Council Announces Big Gains

Ξ April 11th, 2011 | → 14 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine History |

The cork industry has made significant gains winning back consumers recently. Let’s rephrase that. It has been less a question of winning back consumers than of an increasing consumer confidence that wines under cork maintain a consistent, faultless quality in the bottle. So are consumers satisfied with cork? Read on.
Of course, TCA remains a real threat, though anecdotally or via scientific assays it shows up at dramatically reduced levels. The proof, as always, is in the bottle. Simply put, after a mountain of bad press the cork stopper industry has suffered in years, the sharp, focussed promotional initiatives by the screw cap industry, and the occasional high-profile defection of a premium winery to screw caps, it has remained an open question whether the consumer market would fall into line. Has the screw cap industry has made significant gains into the imaginations of discriminating wine buyers? When a consumer visits the market or wine shop do they now prefer screw caps over cork? Has the screw cap become the ‘go to’ stopper? It seems this is not the case for premium wines, at least according to the independent A. C. Nielsen findings first published in a little noticed report at the end of February.
In their first annual report, the Cork Quality Council (CQC) has laid their cards on the table. According to A. C. Nielsen’s figures there has been a 14% sales increase of premium wines under cork stoppers and, within the same period, February ‘10 to February ‘11, a 10% sales decline of wines under screw cap and plastic stoppers.
But just what are ‘premium wines’? First of all they are domestic labels. From CQC’s report,
When sales activity is examined by price, it becomes clear that the growth seen by premium wines during the past 12 weeks occur in the price categories over $9.00.
I am not quite sure what to make of the distinction between 12 months, February, ‘10 to February, ‘11, and the report’s 12 weeks ending in February, ‘11, but if overall, the yearly average is trending, then perhaps the 14% increase of premium wine sales under cork was safely extrapolated from the previous 9 months’ sales figures.
— I received a clarification this morning from 100% Cork with respect to the months vs weeks distinction mentioned above. It reads as follows,
“The year-over-year numbers compare case sales during the 12 weeks ended Feb. 5 with the same time period in 2010. In essence, we are comparing outcomes from two quarters a year apart. It’s just that the quarters end on Feb. 5 so we call them 12-week periods. But it’s a standard year-over-year comparison. And the comparison is of the Top 100 wine brands this year to the Top 100 wine brands last year.”

Please see this press release for more details.
But beyond the [resolved] ambiguities of the CQC report, and the press release forthcoming, a larger question has been provisionally answered, in my view. The noisy alternative closure press, particularly the most active, the screw cap industry, has, it appears, been unsuccessful in making inroads into market share of wines priced from $9 to $20. The consumer is not convinced. In fact, alternative closures have lost ground. If the figures hold, the screw cap industry in particular has been unable to persuade the consumer as to the superiority of their closure.
As a veteran of the cork vs alternative closure wars, I welcome the news. Yet many questions remain. For example, I would like to see more research as to why consumers increasingly purchase wines under cork. Is it out of environmental concern? For everybody intuitively knows cork is inherently recyclable, low tech, and green. Is it a matter of indifference? Or is it simply that a greater number of premium wines are under cork than screw cap? I would like to know.
And I must add a caveat. I admire and regularly drink wines from Austria, the majority of which are under screw cap. I would regret a simple-minded cork boosterism to interfere with the sales of what they do so well, which is produce world-class wines under screw cap. I am not familiar with the economics of the wine industry of the country. But I do know Austria is otherwise environmentally aware, perhaps more so than any other nation in Europe.
I have been informed a summation of the Cork Quality Council’s findings will be released very shortly through 100% Cork’s website and that of the Portuguese Cork Association.


14 Responses to ' Cork Quality Council Announces Big Gains '

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  1. ryan said,

    on April 12th, 2011 at 3:23 am

    I think we all might be giving the consumer too much credit. At the upper end, we “geeks” discuss and care about it. I would guess that at the other end, people really don’t give a rats rearend. They buy on price, label and style/country more than anything. What keeps the wine in the bottle is probably not high on their checklist. I may be wrong, but there are MUCH bigger fish to fry in the “eco” wars to save this planet! :) We love cork, but I think some everyday wine consumers might consider this debate a little less than interesting.

  2. on April 12th, 2011 at 4:09 am

    yes, you’ve just pointed out really interesting areas which are not covered by researches.

    a lot of things depends mainly on money=marketing. probably we’ll never have clear consumers’ insights because huge research requires huge budget (especially if you want to make worldwide research).

    to me, educational aspect is important here – explain to the consumers what kind of faults are related to screw cap and alternative closures. i’m not talking about “small” group of wine lovers, involved in reading blogs, commenting, etc. to me “consumers” term means everyone who is interested in buying wine, like this beverage.

    this topic is really big and in some aspects blurry, so it’s not easy job to change perception. but… who won’t try, won’t achieve ;)

  3. on April 12th, 2011 at 4:16 am

    Good news indeed! The last thing the world needed was more aluminium and petroleum based products!! Hopefully, with consumers slowly becoming more and more environmentally aware, the screwcap and plastic stopper industries will die a well-deserved death!
    Austria! Yes, I was there at the EWBC last year and I also noticed that they use screwcaps almost exclusively; very strange, seeing as how environmentally focussed Austria is with everything else. I wonder why they’ve gone for screwcaps?

  4. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on April 12th, 2011 at 6:58 am

    You may be right, Ryan, as I do not often wade into the wherefores and the whys of marketing per se. Still, perhaps the presence of a cork stopper is among the small details a consumer takes into consideration when buying wine. After all, with respect to larger environmental challenges the public often feels powerless. Nevertheless, your point is well taken. Cheers.

  5. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on April 12th, 2011 at 7:08 am

    Welcome back, Maciek. You are, or course, right. Education is important, especially with respect to faults found in wine under screw cap and alternative closures. And you are also right about the term ‘consumer’. In addition to properly being a larger concept than customarily understood, it also, in my view, implies a passivity that does a disservice to the same. Take care.

  6. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on April 12th, 2011 at 7:18 am

    Good morning, Fabio. It is also important to keep in mind bottle weight, the carbon footprint of intercontinental wine shipping, and recycling, to name but three topics. But I generally agree with your sentiment. Left out of my short post was reference to the social and economic importance of cork forests and stopper manufacture within Portugal. To me that is decisive, the tipping point. Thanks for the comment.

  7. Tom Hayes said,

    on April 12th, 2011 at 8:12 am

    You’ve missed one of the reasons eco-conscious people prefer cork: it’s not just the recyclable nature of the material, but the preservation of the cork forest, especially as a unique habitat. Bio-diversity is a good thing, and the threat to the survival of the Iberian Lynx is iconic of what we risk losing.

    So, there’s the reluctance to abide more plastic in our lives, and the fact that cork is a time-tested component in the wine-aging process, along with a host of other reasons for preferring the traditional closure; it largely comes down to, “the more you know, the more you’ll want corks.”

  8. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on April 12th, 2011 at 8:28 am

    Exactly right, Tom. I have spent time in the cork forests of the Alentejo. It is remarkable for a number of reasons. First of all, the temperature under the canopy is much cooler than the open plain. And one needs only look at the soil, sandy, low in its ability to retain moisture and nutrition, to realize the loss of a cork forest would be a decisive blow to any and all biodiversity now found there. It is a fragile biome, to be sure. Thanks for the comment.

  9. Louise Hurren said,

    on April 12th, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    Reading Decanter today, I learned about Alexandre Relvas Jr who is “unafraid to push boundaries”, working with Herdade de Sao Miguel,”and in Alentejo, amid cork forests, it takes a brave man to put a wine under screw cap” (writes Sarah Ahmed). The wine in question is described as a “bouncy, entry-level blend…”: are there many Portuguese wines under screw cap? is this to be seen as seen as some kind of pioneering step, or treason?

  10. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on April 12th, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    Good question, Louise. I would disagree with Ms. Ahmed. Though hardly treason, neither can it be seen as a pioneering step, for such a pioneer walks the asphalt of city streets not dusty country roads. I do not know the reason(s) behind Mr. Relvas’ decision, but for a ‘bouncy, entry-level blend’, I suppose the target market is the under 20 demographic. So it does, without doubt, send a mixed message to youth. And I wonder what boundary is being bravely pushed? Have the cork forests become insufferably burdensome? Has the weight of protecting local natural history exhausted the ethical imagination? But we have to do something! We must make some effort, however discrete. Doesn’t take much. On the eve of Earth Day, it is the soul who sets aside the car key and bikes to market who is truly pushing boundaries. Cheers, Louise.

  11. on April 13th, 2011 at 2:24 am

    Eco or not eco, the quality of corks still is a much bigger issue for me. Out of 10 bottles I opened at home last week 3 were awfully corked, all of them recently bottled wines from big names in Portugal. Can I have my port under screwcap, please?

  12. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on April 13th, 2011 at 5:49 am

    Thank you for the comment, Andrzej. 3 out of 10? Even in the darkest days of cork, more than a decade ago, anecdotal reports of TCA taint rarely topped 1 in 10. At recent large tasting festivals taint was reported at less than .4%. Last year in Spain, Robert Parker himself specifically noted the dramatic improvements he’s noted in cork quality. And Mr. Vaynerchuk of WLTV fame has said, ‘09 I believe, that he could not remember the last tainted bottle he had. I would encourage you to read Hac(k)ing A Wine, The New Science of Cork Taint for strong evidence concerning alternative taints unrelated to factory-contaminated corks, long known to mar wine.
    Were all 3 wines you cite from the same producer? Winery hygiene can be a problem. Is it possible they were heat damaged? Were they all ports, as you imply? And it is important to note that there are a few cork producers out there who cannot afford all of the tech now required to produce a quality cork stoppers. It can happen that taint originates with them. But I must disagree with the very concept of port under screw cap! As you know, port has tremendous aging potential, a century or more among the finest producers. I shudder to think what would happen to port under screw cap over the long haul. Cheers. I hope your luck improves!

  13. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on April 14th, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    For reasons unknown, Andrzej Daszkieicz has been unable to post a comment through normal channels. He contacted me and I am now able to post his reply below.

    “Ken, three producers (Symingtons, Vallado, Lavradores de Feitoria), three different sources of wine, wines bottled 2008-2009. In all cases the substitute bottles from the same lots were perfectly fine, so had at least sume luck to have them at hand :) Heat damage is another problem, it was not the case here. And all the bottles were really awfully tainted, way above the level at which I might have some doubts.

    I know that 3 out of 10 is a really bad luck, but it happens. And the statistics you provide are way too optimistic in my opinion. I used to judge quite frequently at various competitions in Europe and it was usually more than 4% of obviously corked bottles. When we taste for our wine magazine in Poland, we have somewhere between 2-3% of corked bottles now, more or less uniformly across the price spectrum. It used to be worse, but it is still very disappointing now.

    The corked port I had was tawny, bottled for rather quick consumption. Only a very small percentage of bottles of port are destined for really long aging (vintage from top producers). I do not see any reasons apart from the sentimental ones to bottle all the rest under cork. In fact I’ve asked some producers from Douro about this and most of them seem to agree :-) And even with the vintage the bottle variation at let’s say 30 years of age can be really drammatic, I have seen several instances of that.

    I’ve read before your post that you’ve linked here and I know that a “cork-like” taint is a bit more complicated matter (I had an obviously “corked” chocolate some years ago, a “corked” mineral water etc.). Still, if one bottle from a given case is really awfully tainted, and the rest are singing, I do not see any other explanation.

    Greetings from Poland!

    Andrzej Daszkiewicz, Magazyn WINO

  14. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on April 15th, 2011 at 7:31 am

    Thanks for the follow-up, Andrzej. First of all, the statistics I cite are reports from wine fairs and professional gatherings. Of course, all are necessarily anecdotal as no scientific testing is routinely done to determine whether TCA, TBA, or any number of other taints is at fault. The problem, as I see it, is the knee-jerk assumption that TCA contamination originating in a cork facility must be the culprit. The unfortunate term ‘corked’ began to be used years before new scientific research was to make widely available knowledge of the multiple taints that exist and that can spoil a wine. ‘Corked’ became the default descriptor despite emerging evidence taint pathways were far more complex. Your mention of corked chocolate and mineral water are cases in point.
    Lastly, as the technical papers attached to my Hac(k)ing piece report, TBA’s pathway may be through contaminated bungs, paint, pallets, hoses, shipping and bottle boxes, standing water, winery hygiene generally.

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