Mar
24

Bringing Closure to Cork Taint

French company Diam Bouchage has introduced a new closure designed for long-term cellaring. By Stephen Quinn.

Imagine the disappointment when after cellaring a bottle for decades we have to tip the wine down the sink because it is “corked”. A little more than a decade ago perhaps one or two bottles in a dozen were ruined because of a chemical called trichloroanisole (TCA) in tainted corks.

TCA deadens the flavours of wine and produces aromas (at best) like mouldy cardboard or at worst like a wet dog drying by the fire. Faults in wines are one of the reasons restaurants have justified massive mark-ups. This remains bogus reasoning because restaurants can always return faulty wine to the maker for a refund.

One reaction to TCA was the introduction of screw-cap closures. In the decade to the end of last year, the number of corks used in the 18,000 million bottles of still wine and 2,500 million of sparkling wine produced each year fell from 78 per cent to 61 per cent. The use of screw-caps surged from 5 per cent to 26 per cent.

But some wine experts believe screw-caps limit a wine’s ability to age gracefully and some sommeliers maintain they lack aesthetic appeal. One cannot ignore the romance and ritual of a cork being pulled.

In 2005 a French company, Diam Bouchage, introduced a closure that aimed to return to the natural feel of cork. These corks are known as “Diam”. Dr Christophe Loisel, Diam’s director of research and development, said the name was an abbreviation of the word for diamond, implying precision. “We aim to be pure like a diamond.”

Diam Boucharge is the world leader in closure technology and the word Diam has come into our lexicon to mean a cork-like closure. The company produces 1,500 million closures a year. Diam is the name of the closure for still wine, Mytik for sparkling wine and Altop for spirits such as cognac.

The company is based in the Pyrenees region of France near the border with Spain and has built its reputation on the Diamant process that removes the chemicals that taint the taste of wine.

This week the company released a new closure known as Origine that focuses on using only sustainable ingredients. The process which purifies the cork also uses minimal electricity. The new closure is made of tiny cork granules, beeswax and vegetable oils. It satisfies the needs of winemakers who want a closure suitable for long-term cellaring. The new method is to be used with Diam10 and Diam30, the quality closures designed to be used with bottles to be cellared for 10 or 30 years.

Dr Loisel said the new technology was the result of more than a decade of research aimed at improving “permeability”. This refers to the way that a closure allows for the minute flow of oxygen through a cork, necessary for allowing premium wines to mature slowly, meaning long life in the cellar.

Traditional corks come from the bark of cork trees grown in western Mediterranean countries such as Portugal and Spain. Bark from each tree is harvested about once a decade, so it takes a lot of trees to produce closures for the 20,500 million bottles of still and sparkling wine the world consumes each year. (Global wine consumption is about 35,000 million bottles; the balance is bulk wine in bags and boxes.)

Natural cork production wastes a high proportion of the cork bark because corks are punched out of a piece of bark. More than half of each piece of bark is discarded, whereas Diam corks use all of the bark. About 95 per cent of a Diam closure is made of tiny cork granules. The rest is beeswax and natural binders like castor oil.

Bruno de Saizieu, vice president for sales and marketing, noted a major return to closures instead of screw-caps. Use of Diam rose from 4 per cent to 10 per cent in the past decade. “The trend is for prestige wines to use Diam.”

The company charges 60 to 500 Euros for 1,000 still corks, depending on the quality required. The Bordeaux and Burgundy regions spend a lot of money on quality closures for long-term cellaring, de Saizieu said. Sparkling wine closures cost between 100 and 200 Euros for 1,000. They tend to be cheaper because bottles are opened more quickly compared with closures used for long-term cellaring. About 40 million Diam30 closures are sold each year to prestige champagne houses.

Diam Boucharge, whose motto is “guardian of aromas,” has built a new factory at Ceret in south-west France and this week invited wine journalists from around Europe to attend a launch of the new closure. The factory cost 30 million Euro and was part of an 80 million Euro investment in research and development last year.

CEO Dominique Tournieux said the company remained environmentally aware. “Our objective is to source all our raw materials locally. Wine and cork are closely connected. Traditional cork has had problems with taint in the past.” Human creativity combined with natural products remained the answer, he said.

The company harvests 20,000 hectares of cork trees a year, which is small compared with the amount of cork harvested globally – about 2.2 million hectares. Portugal produces about half of the world’s natural cork though it only has about a third of all the cork trees. Spain has about 27 per cent of the world’s trees.

The company plans to build a factory in Portugal next year. The Ceret factory employs laser printers to enable winemakers to apply unique messages on premium closures.

Beeswax is a key ingredient of the new Diam closure, though the amount of wax used in each cork is tiny. To demonstrate its ecological beliefs, Diam Bouchage is supporting a French association called A Roof of Bees by sponsoring beehives in wine regions around the country. Diam Bouchage only needs about three tonnes of beeswax a year compared with the 100,000 tonnes the world’s honey industry uses.

In France, one of the Rhône’s most dynamic producers, Jean-Luc Colombo, has established beehives at their Cornas vineyard and also become a corporate supporter of the British Beekeepers’ Association. The first Colombo vineyard, purchased in 1986, is named Les Ruchets, which means “the beehives” in honour of the colonies on the property.

Jean-Luc Colombo believes in a natural co-existence between insects, animals and grapes, which can only be accomplished through sustainable vineyard practices in which no pesticides are allowed. Colombo considers the dwindling bee population to be one of the biggest threats to nature. “Honey bees pollinate more than 90 per cent of flowering crops and play a vital role in our food chain,” he said. He has named one of his best Côtes du Rhône wines Les Abeilles (the bees).

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest of Diam Bouchage in southern France for the release of the new closures.