How Wine is Closed Shouldn’t Be A Guessing Game

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his holiday season, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself at a restaurant ordering wine or shopping for wine in a retail store—and you will not be alone. According to Nielsen, a group that studies consumers’ shopping purchases, overall wine sales are 67-percent higher in the week leading up to Christmas compared to an average week.

When ordering that bottle of wine, there is a sense of wonder, a desire to explore your options, and anticipation for what is to come (I certainly see it in my diners). We love the surprise factor. How will the wine appear? Will it smell citrusy or more like tobacco? How will it complement the meal we are eating? How will it evolve after opening?

One element of the wine bottle should not be a surprise: how it is closed.

Most wine bottles are closed in one of three ways: a screw cap, a synthetic cork, or a natural cork, which is cork made using the bark of a cork oak tree.

Of the three options, natural cork is by far the most environmentally friendly. And, for consumers who want to support sustainable, renewable, and recyclable efforts, it’s the only one.

Cork is wood that is peeled off the tree. Harvesting it does not harm or kill the tree. Rather, it prolongs the life of the tree—many live up to 250 years. The cork industry is the economic anchor that maintains the profitable and sustainable use of the Mediterranean Cork Forest. Cork trees spread over 6 million acres and remain untouched for decades, countering soil erosion. In Portugal alone, where the majority of cork trees stand, the forest acts as a carbon sink for 4.8 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.

When you drink a bottle of wine closed with a natural cork, you’ll also be a part of preserving the habitats of thousands of plants and animals including the endangered Iberian Lynx, of which there are only a couple of hundred left in the world.

Presently, about 70 percent of the wine bottles consumed by drinkers in the United States are closed with a natural cork. If consumers knew the environmental impact of the cork forests and understood that over the past few years North America has recycled over 70 million corks each year which are then used to make flooring, insulation, yoga blocks, and even shoes, they may be more insistent on buying wine closed with natural cork.

Screw caps are the main competitor of cork in the U.S. right now. Screw caps are neither biodegradable nor recyclable. According to the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance, no recycling center in the U.S. will recycle them. Additionally, if a wine is to develop its flavor, oxygenation is necessary. Natural cork enables wine to mature by allowing tiny amounts of oxygen to enter. Screw caps allow no air to get into the bottle, and synthetic cork allows too much. Only natural cork allows a wine to breathe and age properly.

A test administered by the Portuguese cork association, APCOR, at three New Jersey wine shops showed that it may be in the interest of wineries to have neck hangers on their bottles.

The test administrators selected a brand of white wine and a brand of red wine. Over the course of three weekends, each carried a natural cork neck hanger—a little note stating that the wine is closed with cork and outlining the environmental benefits of cork. Researchers then compared the results to three weekends before and after the test weekend. Sales of wines with neck hangers increased 46 percent when compared to the same wine without a label around its neck.

Unfortunately, right now, it is often difficult to determine how a bottle is closed, especially as some wine closures are wrapped.

Consumer demand can be a powerful tool in changing the marketplace. When consumers expressed concern about artificial colors and ingredients, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese moved away from synthetic agentsand sourced the orange coloring from paprika, turmeric, and annatto. When organic food purchases rose 11 percent in just one year, big supermarkets responded by expanding their organic offerings.

Until there’s more transparency or neck hangers become more commonplace, I ask you to start the conversation. Talk to your restaurateur or wine merchant and ask if the wine you are about to purchase is closed with natural cork. If it’s not, ask for one that is. Besides, who doesn’t love the sound of popping a cork from a favorite wine?

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