DE SOR, Portugal — "A cork!" exclaimed Marta Sá Pinto, a biotechnologist
who has a doctorate in the manufacture of wine corks. "It seemed
like such a simple thing, but there really is a lot going on with
In a previously sleepy corner of the global economy,
a fierce battle has been joined: natural cork versus synthetic material
to keep the world's wines at their finest.
For Portugal, synthetic corks have become a bane
in the neck of the wine bottle, for they threaten an industry that
represents 3 percent of gross domestic product in a country that
accounts for half of the world's cork production, and 85 percent
of all wine corks.
Ms. Sá Pinto is in charge of research for Suberus
Group, one of Portugal's largest cork manufacturers, and she can
detail exhaustively the ozone baths, microwave treatments and boiling
processes that go into the production of the apparently simple modern
While wine collectors and columnists debate the
philosophical desirability of living in a world of plastic- stoppered
wine, cork manufacturers here have scrambled to create a new breed
of cork able to compete with the taint-free, consistent performance
offered by synthetics.
In recent years, many even felt the growing market
share of synthetic corks — currently estimated at 5 to 10 percent
of the global market — was threatening even more than the loss of
Portuguese jobs. Environmental groups warned that a crash in cork
prices would cause the loss of the huge cork forests, which in turn
would hasten the demise of already marginal animal life and encourage
In the heart of cork country, Ms. Sá Pinto is
tweaking equipment at a new factory that incorporates the results
of her research and should produce up to three million state-of-
the-art corks a day when it starts up next month. "A lot of it is
in the ozone," she said. "One of our big secrets is how we mix our
ozone with special ingredients to remove spores and dangerous compounds."
The aim is to keep both the cork industry growing
and to preserve the cork forests.
The manufacturers of plastic corks are not going
to take the challenge lying down. "We can print a U.P.C. code on
the side of our product with high-resolution inks," said Robert
Anderson, the president of Supreme Corq, a leading synthetic cork
manufacturer. "Using the closure as a marketing tool provides a
huge opportunity to build a brand."
Mr. Anderson said the growth of synthetics was
a result of their ability "to create a product that lets wine taste
the way the winemaker intended it to." "Wine is a trinity," counters
João Posser de Andrade, the owner of a cork farm in southern Portugal.
"The bottle is the skeleton, the wine is the blood and the cork
is the lung. Can you imagine a lung made of the byproducts of the
Those who have to decide between the two products
wish each side would see the benefits of the other. "It's a bit
childish," said Patrick Mahaney, vice president for winemaking at
Robert Mondavi wineries in Napa Valley, Calif. "Proponents of plastic
don't want to hear about the benefits of cork, and those entrenched
in naturals don't want to hear about what plastic has to offer."
The Australian Wine Research Institute added
fuel to the fire when it released preliminary results last summer
of a long-term study that indicated that synthetic corks provided
a lot of benefits over natural corks. Each side saw what they wanted
to see in the results — synthetics scored highly, but the natural
cork people pointed to the "rubberlike aroma" lent the wine sealed
Seen from Mr. Andrade's bucolic cork farm, cork
indeed seems essential to the fine taste of wine. This year's cork
bark harvest stood carefully stacked among the trees as it began
the curing process and the long road to the bottle.
Even here, however, change is palpable. "There
has been a revolution in our cork," Mr. Andrade said, reviewing
recent changes to the business, in which his family has worked since
1840. In a few years, he conceded, harvesting may even come to be
done by a machine, not — as for centuries — by hand. Mr. Andrade
held up a piece of his carefully produced cork. "Plastic has no
chance," he said. "I am confident in the good sense of the people."