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Natural cork proves a winner in the US

According to a recent survey in the US, a consumer preference for natural cork closures has contributed to the success of a New Zealand wine, a conclusion that has been underlined by two new studies. Plus a leading professor of enology states TCA is no longer an issue

A New Zealand wine has just become the bestselling Sauvignon Blanc in the US – with the use of a selected natural cork stopper given as a key factor in the wine’s sales success. The brand was packaged specifically for the US consumer by sealing the wine under cork, a move that meant bucking the screwcap trend so endemic in New Zealand.

This preference for natural cork is borne out by US trade publication Wine Business Monthly which highlighted the positive perceptions of natural cork among US wineries in its 2009 Closure Report.

The latest survey of 229 US wineries, published in the June edition, shows that natural cork remains the highest rated closure in terms of ‘overall perceptions’. The ‘best overall’ accolade was achieved by natural cork’s top rating in several
categories including consumer acceptance, performance on the bottling line and product performance.

And in a recent consumer perceptions study conducted by Nelson Barber, Christopher Taylor and Tim Dodd of the Texas Tech University titled Twisting Tradition: Consumers' Behavior Toward Alternative Closures, suggests that 71 per cent of US consumers prefer natural cork closures.

In a presentation on the study the researchers said that “packaging can be of considerable value as a competitive marketing strategy” and that the “style of
closure adds directly to the look of the product and is considered by consumers as a direct reflection of the quality of the wine”. They suggested “consumers still consider screwcaps to be an indication of cheap wines and cork and indication of quality”. Thus, little has changed since the 2005 survey by the Tragon Corporation which showed that US consumers preferred to buy wine sealed with natural cork ahead of all other closure types.

Cork continues to be the wine closure of choice for millions of US consumers.

At a time when Dr Christian Burke, professor oenology, and chairman and chief judge of one of the US’ largest wine competitions, voices his belief TCA is no longer an issue from both a consumer and winemaker perspective.

In the latest issue of Vineyard and Winery Management, Dr Burke – considered to be one of the leading wine experts in the US – reviews his assessment of tasting thousands of international and American wines entered in this year’s Indy  International Wine Competition. Cork had, he declared, delivered a performance rate that exceeded 99%.

A number of independent analyses provide scientific evidence of the improvement in cork’s performance and particularly the drop in the incidence of 2,4,6 trichloroanisole (TCA) contamination.

Leading cork producer Amorim’s director of marketing and communications, Carlos de Jesus, said it was refreshing to hear industry leaders acknowledging the progress that has been made by the cork industry in recent years.

“The problems associated with TCA contamination, as Dr Butzke’s assessment suggests, are now a rarity and this is evident in both scientific analysis and anecdotally,” he said. “As with any other product or service, promises of perfection are difficult to deliver, but Amorim will continue to aim higher and higher when it comes to the performance of our products. We look at strong figures such as those presented by Dr Butzke as a great departure point, never as the limit of natural cork’s performance capabilities.

“While some commentators continue to live in the past when talking about natural cork, we know from our discussions with winemakers on all continents that the industry recognises the progress that has been made.”

1 August 2009 - Felicity Murray