By OTTO POHL
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 it."
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 cork.
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 desertification.
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 petroleum industry?"
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 with synthetics.
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."