Bad Wine is Good For The Environment?

Thanks to Decanter Magazine it recently came to my attention that the World Wildlife Fund has begun a campaign to preserve the use of natural cork in the use of wine. It seems a counter-intuitive call for an environmental organization because in essence the use of cork involves the exploitation of the environment.

What WWF is saying, however, in their recently released report "CORK SCREWED" (PDF), is that if the global wine industry continues to migrate over to alternatives to cork closures for wine an entire biosphere attached to the cork forests is under threat to be destroyed as farmers will be forced to replace their cork forests with other agricultural products.

So, WWF is urging wineries, out of a concern for the environment to choose cook and urging consumers to demand this be done.

The WWF Report says very little about WHY the wine industry is migrating away from cork toward alternative closures: cork taint. It is commonly understood that the nasty smell that pops out of a glass of wine about 5% of the time when it is closed with cork is the result of a contamination of the cork by a nasty compound called TCA. WWF addresses this issue like this:

"Information about tainting by TCA in various media often places the blame on
the cork, and can confuse consumers. People tend to blame taint problems
on the cork, on the basis of misleading or incomplete information."

Without denying that tainted corks are most often the source of TCA in wine, they suggest it is just as often the result of TCA being in the wine or in the cellar, rather than in the cork.

This is disingenuous at best as research as shown that contaminated cork is far more often the source of "cork taint".

The WWF’s campaign, while understandable and perhaps laudable, will fail. Unless the cork industry can find a way to guarantee their product does not ruin the wine, the wine industry will continue to look for alternatives that don’t make up to 5% or more of their product undrinkable. I suspect the WWF would suggest that that this 5% undrinkabilty rate should simply be the price the wine industry pays for being good stewards of the natural environment.

Andrew Jeffords, a well-respected English wine writer has the best response I’ve seen:

"The industry will always take quality control as the most important
issue. Producers will go for screwcap regardless of the environmental
considerations if they think it is the best closure. While red wine producers are still very uncertain that
screwcaps are the future, for short-term storage wines cork has already
lost the battle. No amount of environmental pleading will change that."

3 Responses

  1. Derrick Schneider - July 14, 2006

    While I’m a big screw cap/glass closure fan, it’s very legitimate to put some thought into the effects of a massive conversion.
    Not only the environmental effects (NPR did a great piece on this a couple of years ago), but also the social effects. There are a lot of people in Portugal who rely on the cork trade for income. While it’s very “free market” American to leave them out to dry (or to just assume they’ll find other jobs), it’s more human to at least keep it in mind.
    I agree the cork battle is a losing one at this point, but you can’t just ignore the side effects.
    Incidentally, that’s probably the only reason foie gras is still legal in the EU–the investigation group wanted to ban it in 1998, but the huge economic impact postponed their decision.

  2. Paul - July 15, 2006

    The report says that 95% of “cork oak landscapes” in Portugal are privately owned. Given the commercial success of cork over the last 100 years as wine has become more commercial and globalized, I wonder if the amount of cork oak landscape has grown, having been planted as a cash crop. If this is true, conserving the landscapes is conserving something artificial — an artifact of commerce. Progress giveth and progress taketh away.

  3. JohnLopresti - July 16, 2006

    There are a lot of studies showing the slow permeability of natural cork enhances aging. Synthetic ‘corks’ are going to have to get more porous, kind of like the way paper towels in the kitchen have matured in texture; but the contact with the wine within makes the chemical exercise much more difficult for designing a functional closure substitute for natural cork; and screwcaps are an aging obstacle.
    A balanced selection of Limousin for staves and voila, a masking volatile aroma to pardon the offending lowgrade variety of cork closure. Even the paraffin common on many corks in the US approaches the chemical structure of some native components of wine. I need to read the modern literature here. Nice presentation, TW.

Leave a Reply