The process of making cork is a tedious one. First, the cork oak forests that grow in Portugal cannot have their bark stripped until they are twenty-five years old. After the first stripping, the trees can only be stripped once every nine years and the cork is not up to wine bottle quantity until after their third stripping. This is along and tedious process and there is no way to speed up production. Due to the increased demand for cork, the prices are rising. This is where the synthetic cork comes in.
Vintners are constantly trying to improve their bottle closures to prevent TCA, or cork taint, and paying high prices for cork. The synthetic cork appeared in 1993 and they cost about seven cents each while natural cork is 13 to 75 cents each. You would think that the synthetic cork would take over the market, however, they do not provide the tight seal that natural cork provides. Synthetic corks are only being used on bottles that are to be consumed with five years or less because of the lack of seal that synthetic cork provides.
TCA is trichloroanisole results from the interaction of mold, chlorine and phenols in cork. These chemicals are found in all plants. TCA produces a dark and moldy smell with the flavor of cardboard. This is something that wineries live in fear of. Wines that develop TCA are often called “corked” wines. Some wineries are losing thousands of cases to TCA.
The screw cap is another option that a vineyard has. The screw cap is fitted on to bottles and is quickly gaining popularity as it prevents TCA and air completely. There has not been a lot of research on whether or not the wines will age well with the screw top, but the University of California at Davis is working on this project. The caps are getting some criticism simply because unscrewing the top takes away from the experience of drinking a bottle of wine.
Supreme Corq is the largest producer of synthetic cork in the world. They are selling their cork to over 1,000 wineries in North and South America as well as South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Many top-quality wines are being corked with these synthetic corks. These synthetic corks are coming in a variety of colors and styles from cow spots to purple and orange. Then there are the wineries that do not necessarily want their synthetic corks to look like plastic and have opted for a more natural looking cork. When it is removed, you wouldn’t know that it was synthetic until you investigated it a little more.
Supreme Corq “corks” are made from a food grade, high quality thermoplastic elastomer, which provides a TCA free seal in the wine bottle. Supreme Corq is providing synthetic corks to over 1600 wineries in 32 different countries. Because the seal is food grade and the molds are of the highest quality, they do not allow microbial growth and thus TCA is not a problem. The corks can also be printed for specific wineries with FDA approved ink that does not run off.
Supreme Corqs are also recyclable and have been designated as “other” or “number 7.” This is for plastic that is accepted by recyclers in areas where there is a demand that justifies this type of recycling. Supreme Corq has established recycling programs in areas where there have been a sufficient demand; they also recycle their own scrap materials. In addition to bottle corks, they can also be used for crafts, key chains and pencil erasers. These corks can also be used at home or in a tasting room to reseal a bottle, however, they do not recommend that you reuse the corks on new bottles of wine. Another benefit to the corks is that they do not change the taste of the wine.
Consumers are interested in where the market will go. It is unsettling to many home wine consumers that if they purchase cases of wine that one in twenty will be tainted. About 5 percent of bottles are ruined by TCA and if you suppose that one of those bottles is a 1985 Bordeaux, the chances of getting that bottle replaced are slim to none. This is also unsettling if you have been saving a specific bottle for a holiday or anniversary and the bottle is tainted. Even if the bottle can be replaced, you don’t typically have a replacement on hand when you need it. If the synthetic corks can prevent this occurrence, you may see a drive towards synthetic versus the natural cork. People are also looking for wines that they can drink right away. They don’t want to buy wine that will have to age for a few years before they can enjoy it. This is causing some producers to use both natural and synthetic corks. Wineries such as Clos du Bois and Kendall-Jackson are using synthetic corks in some of their wines.