Can Wine Worshippers Tolerate Screw Caps

Would anyone sip and savour a $40,000 Jéroboam of Dom Perignon White Gold whose bouchon went “clik” rather than “blop”?

Would you cl…. no, you really wouldn\’t, would you.

The cork industry, discharging double barrels in its fight to the death with synthetic “cappers”, sincerely hopes true wine lovers will resoundingly choose “le blop”.

Indeed the industry might be asking (but hasn’t) what self-respecting champagne connoisseur could, with any equanimity, contemplate the usurping of satisfyingly explosive and expensive traditional champagne cork “pops” by dull metallic “cliks” from some technology upstart?

Tell us now. For the industry is awaiting the consumers’ verdict, as the latest challenger in the stopper stakes audaciously attacks the Champagne heartlands of French wine culture – les Ardennes.

Champagne, united to the crown of France by marriage in 1285, has been the scene of major battles in French history:
• on 20 June 451, the Battle of Chalons, (near the present site of Chalons-en-Champagne), was where Attila the Hun was defeated by General Aetius;
• on 20 September 1792, the Battle of Valmy, was where the generals and Kellermann Dumouriez halted the Duke of Brunswick’s Prussian army and preserved the Revolution;
• during World War l (September 5 -13, 1914), the Battle of the Marne was the scene of heavy fighting with the most famous episode being when Joseph Joffre, Marshal of France stopped the German advance on the outskirts of Paris.

The latest, but no more prosaic epic, is being keenly fought because its outcome will have profound impact on the wine industry and its supply chains.

Ranked on either side of the champagne slopes are two powerful groups fighting for the support of wine lovers everywhere.

On the sunny uplands are marshalled the traditionalists with centuries of cork wine stopper experience behind them, led by the Portuguese – the world’s largest natural cork producers. On the stonier lower ground stands the challenger, the Canadian aluminium giant Alcan and its vast global resources.

The stakes are high and both sides are investing heavily. The first blow to the French/Portuguese cork alliance was the early defection to the “clik” camp, of Duval-Leroy, founded in 1859 and one of the country’s leading champagne houses.

In May 2009 Duval-Leroy, announced it would use Alcan’s Maestro capping system on its Clos des Bouveries range of champagne saying: ‘Our main aim is to avoid incidences of cork tainting – and it will also be safer to manipulate than traditional stoppers.’

Maestro makers Alcan packaging, major suppliers of screwcaps to the still wine industry, were naturally delighted — the company had spent 1 million euros and taken 3 years to develop the Maestro system.

“The Champagne cork hasn’t changed for 150 years, so I think it’s high time we evolved a bit,” says Carol Duval-Leroy, head of Champagne Duval-Leroy. But despite her view that there is a pressing need for cork alternatives– she says she doesn’t want to gamble her production on the long-term survival of the world’s cork forests — the champagne region is (and thankfully say the Portuguese) conservative. Indeed according to a recent survey (ordered of course by the natural cork lobby) 89.3% of French wine consumers prefer the cork stopper to any other kind.

Carol Duval-Leroy’s views on cork sustainability are, according to Portuguese cork oak growers, a myth. Cork has been put to work since Tutankhamen was a tot and Portuguese cork oak forests, protected by draconian laws, carefully managed and eminently renewable have been around for millennia.

“. . . Sometime in the mid-17th century, legend has it, a Benedictine champagne maker named Dom Pérignon got sick of hearing his bottles blow their oily gaskets (an olive oil–soaked rag around a wooden bung). He tried cork, and—voilà!—the fine-wine industry was born. For the first time in wine’s 5,000-year history, stored wine could be kept fresh,” writer Susan McGrath explains in this lengthy piece on cork and wine: Audubon

The traditionalist view in the champagne region is further helpfully summed up by Michel Drappier, the man behind Champagne Drappier who says the “weight of history and image” lies behind the traditional Champagne cork. “I have no qualitative arguments against (Maestro),” he says. “But I have one big concern — I feel the romantic side of Champagne will be badly bruised by it.”

Indeed would the roulette and champagne set at Monte Carlo sup bubbly from a screw top magnum? What winner of the Tour de France would be content with a shower of champagne lacking the loud popping chorus of corks and loads of fizz? The champagne cork and its fizzy-pop are surely bywords of celebrity, success, money and class? What can the screw cappers be thinking of?

Cork of course comes from eco-friendly trees while screwcaps … well, take a look

As the battle-front extends the cork industry is pulling out all the stops. Plosive pops are on the lips of those launching a major PR and marketing campaign targeting France and other global wine markets. Meanwhile the Portuguese think they have gained shrewd advantage by playing a very strong eco-card.

“Le blop” you see grows on trees, “le clik”…. well as any self-respecting eco-warrior can tell you, aluminium is synonymous with smelting, belching, and plenty of other insalubrious epithets.

Cork wine stoppers grow on reusable trees and can be fully recycled

Thus as the cork traditionalists are quick to tell the world, the old way of doing things is better for the environment. Cork is renewable, recyclable, and biodegradable. Made from the bark of cork oak trees, it is peeled off in swirls once every 7-10 years and it grows back over and over again. A typical cork oak provides usable bark for up to 200 years.

Cork oak forests cover huge tracts of the Mediterranean including Spain, Algeria, Morocco, Italy, Tunisia, France but most importantly Portugal.

And says the Portuguese cork association, APCOR , these forests shelter a range of plant and animal species, including the endangered Iberian lynx, Barbary deer and Imperial Iberian eagle.

The forests create work for more than 100,000 people and 70% of output is used to make the 15 billion cork stoppers sold annually.

A report by the Worldwide Fund for Nature, warns that if the trend away from using wine corks continues, an area of cork forest half the size of Switzerland could stop being cultivated and either die out or burn up.

Synthetic corks and screw tops use large amounts of energy – producing carbon emissions and other pollution and are hard to recycle. Environmental groups including the WWF and the Forest Stewardship Council are now firmly behind the campaign for real cork.

The Forest Stewardship Council is one arm of the multi-level Portuguese-led cork offensive, and one which is clearly attractive for the winning-hearts-and-minds-strategy in an increasingly eco-aware trading environment.

Cork is Portugal’s second largest earner after tourism and the country’s main exporters, grouped under the Amorim Irmãos-led APCOR – Associação Portuguesa de Cortiça or cork producers association, is taking no chances. Apcor’s Carlos Jesus told French-News-Online, Portugal exported 2.5 thousand tonnes of champagne corks to France, worth 22.4 million euros in 2009 together with 3.4 thousand tonnes of natural cork stoppers worth 87.6 million euros, a performance that was slightly down on 2008 levels.

As the screw-capping attackers rally troops to the fray, the natural cork defenders are digging trenches and preparing a thorough counter attack.

The Cork Army and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) recently savoured a significant victory after Sainsbury’s, the UK’s third largest supermarket chain, pledged that all corks in its own-label drinks will now come from guaranteed sustainable sources. Keen to underline its environmental pedigree, Sainsbury’s announced a full-scale switch-over for the supermarket’s 6m bottles of own-brand wine, champagne, and sparkling wines using FSC-certified corks would be completed in time for Christmas 2010.

Apcor and the Fédération Française des Syndicats du Liège, the French federation of professional users of natural cork has just unleashed a major media campaign plugging cork stoppers, that will run through to mid-2011. As part of this they have released the results of a consumer preference survey showing, they claim, overwhelming victory for the cork forces.

“The survey shows that the public is very sensitive to the presence of a cork in a bottle of wine and 9 out of 10 consumers consider it their preferred stopper. Other qualities highlighted by the Apcor survey show how the cork’s exceptional qualities compared to other forms of closure makes cork the preferred choice for 94% of respondents with 77% of these considering it more environmentally friendly than alternatives. 89.3% of the French prefer cork to any other stoppers.
– For 96.3% of them, cork perpetuates tradition and know-how
– For 89.8% of them, cork preserves the full aroma of the wine
– For 84.7% of them cork ensures wine keeps longer
– For 83.4% of them cork is a sign of a quality wine
– For 71.5% of them cork has a low environmental impact”
Source: Planetliege

See more on the Apcor France site

Story: Ken Pottinger

SEE ALSO: Now there are also aluminium concerns

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