In the 1990s, 95 percent of wine bottles were sealed with natural cork. Today, that number is down by a third. Screw caps and plastic corks gained market share as cork taint increased because of that nasty chemical known as TCA. Although the cork industry was severely impacted by diminished sales, it was publicly silent although not passive.
Cork taint occurs when naturally occurring fungi and bacteria on cork come in contact with chlorine, which is easy enough, especially through water. Around 2005, as much as seven to ten percent of corks were contaminated with TCA, which at first robs wine of flavor and in later stages produces moldy sensations, driving angry winemakers to non-cork bottle closures.
Over the years, the cork industry has been researching and implementing new production strategies and technologies to diminish TCA. Currently, just one to two percent of corks are contaminated, according to what should be an unbiased source from the University of California, Davis. Major cork companies have also opened facilities in Northern California, where they can directly service the wine industry, instead of dealing with intermediaries.
Now that cork taint is thoroughly under control and will probably diminish even further, the Cork Quality Council and 100% Cork, another organization supported by the cork industry, are making a loud and convincing argument in favor of their product.
In terms of wine, cork is the only stopper that is capable of preserving wine for 20 to 30. Plastics and screw caps create various problems in the long term and have been used mostly for fresh wines, especially whites that are expected to be consumed soon after bottling.
But the newer argument in favor of cork considers its sustainability. Cork is harvested from oak trees mainly in Portugal and Spain. The bark, from which corks are made, is trimmed every nine years, without harming the trees. Along with protecting plants and endangered animals, these old-growth, bio-diverse forests absorb millions of tons of CO2, combating global warming. Whereas cork is entirely biodegradable, aluminum screw caps and plastic stoppers, made from petro chemicals, are derived from precious resources and end up in land fill.
Cork sales to wineries are now increasing, and American consumers prefer them. 100% Cork’s Facebook page asked the question, “Why do people prefer wines with natural cork?” One wine consumer responded,” You need to ask? Because that’s a real bottle of wine.”