Cork is still king in the consumer’s mind, but how do other closures stack up across the world?
Cork is an extraordinary substance. It is light, flexible, can withstand forces of compression and tension that would destroy many other materials. It has insulating and sound-proofing qualities. It seals an estimated 60% of the world’s wine bottles, around 13 billion a year. The cork oaks whose bark is harvested once a decade sustain an extraordinary and precious ecosystem in the arid plains of Portugal, Spain and North Africa. And when we have finished with all these functions, cork burns rather well, in a carbon neutral way.
However, for many years in the wine business, mention of cork has often been a good way to start an argument. Many consumers still love it, as natural cork provides the assurance of a wine well-made, traditionally bottled and with the Pavlovian opening “pop” acts as a distinct mood-enhancer. Many producers also love it, not just because it represents continuity and tradition; they actively believe that its presence is essential to their product’s development in bottle. Other producers actively despise it, having had poor experiences with TCA (an organic chemical which naturally occurs in untreated cork) which, if not properly removed, can turn a beautiful wine into the wet dog and damp basement odour of a corked bottle. Other dangers abound: the same slow and gentle oxygenation of wine that cork affords can go too far too fast, hurtling past the desirable development of tertiary characteristics and straight to oxidation.
Over the past 15 years the natural cork industry has cleaned up its act dramatically, but at the same time producers now have a lot more choice in how they seal their wines. As well as screwcaps and synthetic corks, producers can now choose glass stoppers, such as Vinolok, or plastic moulded stoppers, or even humble crown-caps. Over the years, Wine Intelligence has conducted extensive, cross-market research into consumer attitudes to the three mainstays of closure – natural cork, synthetic cork and screwcap – to determine what regular wine drinkers truly prefer.
The latest data shows that consumers are moving with the times, but that any talk of cork’s demise is very premature. With the exception of Australia (spiritual homeland of the screwcap), natural cork remains the most preferred closure in the five markets shown below. A series of recent developments – including Amorim’s “Ndtech” cork, a natural cork that comes with a TCA-free guarantee – has breathed new life into the market. It was enough for Domaine Laroche to turn their backs on screwcap and go back to cork for their Premier and Grand Cru Chablis.
In 3 out of 5 markets examined, cork remains king. A clear majority of consumers in the US, Germany and China agree that they “like buying wine with this closure”. Screwcaps, however, are more polarising. Upper-middle class imported wine drinkers in China appear to be suspicious of them, with 32% agreeing “I don’t like buying wine with this closure”. It is the most rejected closure of all kinds across all markets; not even synthetic corks, recording 22% in China for the same statement, stir up this level of rejection. Further digging shows us why. Just 13% agree screwcap is “appropriate for Old World Wines” and 15% that they are “traditional.” Natural corks pull in 37% and 43% respectively. In China, where much wine consumption is still centred around special occasions and gift giving, traditional French reds such as Bordeaux and Burgundy dominate. Natural cork is almost a given and is certainly expected for wines from these regions.
Australia and the UK offer a different perspective. In both markets screwcap and cork are broadly accepted, but in Australia, the screwcap is generally preferred. Findings from our new Australia Landscapes 2017 report show that acceptance of screwcap as a closure is still on the up; in 2017, 49% agreed that they like this closure, up from 45% in 2016. In the UK, natural cork remains the people’s preference – but only just. In this market, 2017 could see screwcap finally overtake its established rival in terms of affinity.
Coming to synthetic corks, “Neutral” is the default position for consumers in our five key markets. Few consumers actively like buying wine with this closure, with China the only market where synthetic corks are more popular than screwcaps. This is, perhaps, less a comment on the popularity of synthetic corks and more a comment on the unpopularity of screwcaps. An imagery positioning map tells us that in China, synthetic corks are viewed as sustainable, contemporary, and especially appropriate for New World wines (e.g. Australia).