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The cork fights back – new generation screw cork unveiled

Amorim, the world’s largest manufacturer of cork stoppers, and O-I, the world’s largest glass container manufacturer, have unveiled their Helix cork and bottle, designed so that the cork can be removed with a simple twist of the wrist. [Click pic to enlarge]

The Helix cork and accompanying bottle have a thread finish to allow drinkers to twist the stopper open and closed again, creating an airtight barrier.

It will be unveiled at the International VinExpo wine fair in Bordeaux, and its makers say it could be on shop shelves in Europe within the next 24 months.

The design is the result of a four-year collaboration between the two vendors who are aiming it at the £5 to £10 fast-turnaround, non-sparkling table wine market. The aim is that in an era when wine now comes in boxes, cartons and even cans, they can keep the appeal of glass bottles sealed with corks.

It follows research that found an “overwhelming preference” among consumers for the cork and glass bottle combination.

In many markets, wine is seen as an upmarket beverage and the bottle-and-cork storage is an integral part of this, while screw tops tend to be associated in the minds of consumers with inferior quality wines.

In other markets, however, such as those in South African and Australia, such is the screw top’s hegemony even for premium wines, that this perception has changed.

Helix corkThe Helix dissected

The Helix “twist to open” system consists of an ergonomically-designed cork stopper and a glass bottle with an internal thread finish in the neck. Instead of requiring a corkscrew, it opens like a screw-top bottle, though with the addition of a pleasant “pop.” It is also resealable as easily as it opens. [Click pic to enlarge]

Metal and plastic screw tops for wine bottles seem pretty logical. They keep the contents inside, keep the air out, they’re easy to open and, unlike corks, are just as easy to reseal. Modern screw tops work well. Unlike the older ones that were completely airtight, the latest versions are permeable to allow for gas exchange between the contents and the air.

“Helix meets consumers’ growing desire for sustainability and quality, while delivering the brand building and premium image packaging wineries rely upon,” says Antonio Amorim, chairman and CEO of Amorim. “We are delighted to offer the market not only a 100% renewable, modern product, but also a solution that enhances the wine drinking experience through opening and resealing convenience.”

A cork may seem as simple a piece of technology possible and that making one that screws in and out should be child’s play, but there’s more to this simple stopper.

A cork stopper works by absorbing wine into it and expanding to form a nearly airtight, yet breathable seal. This is the reason why wine is properly stored on its side with the neck angled slightly down to allow the wine to remain in contact with the cork. At the same time, the cork mustn’t absorb the wine too readily or it will soak through.

Additionally, the cork shouldn’t react with the wine or the result will be a glass of something ghastly. Corks also keep the wine from going bad by allowing oxygen to migrate back through, which combats the build up of sulfides, so you don’t open a bottle of what smells like rotten eggs.

Since the Helix cork is formed by pressing cork fragments in a mold rather than cut straight from the cork tree bark, four years of development and testing by Amorim and O-I was undertaken before they had a stopper that could not only screw in and out, but would also do the job of a traditional cork.

As part of the testing, non-sparkling white wine was bottled and stored horizontally at 35ºC for 30 days. In addition, extensive tests were carried out that involved storing the wine for 26 months to ensure there was no effect on the wine’s taste, aroma or colour.

The makers also point to Helix’s green credentials, citing the sustainable nature of glass bottles, which are easily recycled, and cork stoppers, which are made by removing the bark without felling any trees. They also say that the system can be used by wineries with only a minor adjustment to existing filling lines.

Source: Helix, Gizmag

COMMENT: Turning the Screwcap?

It must be said that I have always been sceptical – borderline cynical – when it comes to Portuguese cork producer Amorim. As a company, it seems to me to have spent a good deal of time over the last 20 years attempting either to prove that claims of cork taint were exaggerated, or gently denigrating the alternatives to natural cork. 

In the process, it has expended a lot of energy that could – and should – have been put into actually sorting out the problem, into laying false trails or denying the warning signs…

… Amorim claims that it has the advantages of cork without any of the disadvantages, citing four main benefits. Firstly, it’s re-sealable; secondly it’s eco-friendly; thirdly it’s good for the economic ecosystem of the cork forests; and finally it retains the ‘pop’ sound of a cork coming out of a bottle that consumers love so much.

To my mind, one of these statements is true, two are debatable and the fourth is plain wrong.

There’s no question that a cork-based product is going to help sustain the economy of the cork forests of the Alentejo, and this, surely, is a good thing. No-one likes to see communities dying slowly. Though whether the Helix will take off in sufficient numbers to make a difference is a moot point at the moment. 

Estimates from synthetic closure producer Nomacorc put screwcaps and synthetic closures at around a third of the market. The Helix will need to go a long way to reverse that trend on its own.

The environmental argument seems reasonable enough. Cork trees, after all, are self-renewing. But although the Helix is, I should imagine, more eco-friendly than a Stelvin closure, there are still question marks over how biodegradable agglomerate (as opposed to natural) corks are, since they are held together with glue.

This, though, is less contentious than the assertion that the bottle is ‘re-sealable’, or, as the press release, puts it: “A solution that enhances the wine drinking experience through opening and resealing convenience.”

This, frankly, is nonsense. Given that once any closure – bar a Champagne cork – is taken out, it can be put back in (or ‘resealed’ as it’s technically known) it means that screwcaps, corks and even synthetics are all resealable as well. In this area, the Helix is hardly a game-changer.

However, there seems to be an implication that wines can be kept fresh by re-inserting the Helix into the neck of the bottle, which is clearly nonsense. 

“Bottles,” we are told, “‘can be opened and closed several times, simply by holding the bottle and twisting the top.” This is true, but unless you drink the contents quickly it’s not going to do you much good. Unless, of course, you just like opening and closing bottles…

Which brings me to the ‘pop’ question. While the noise wasn’t quite as explosive as you’d get from a ‘proper’ cork – more of a dull ‘pung’ than a ‘pop’ – it’s still an improvement on the lack of theatre surrounding a screwcap.

There will be many people around the world who couldn’t care less about this. But, there are also many who do; who, for whatever reason, like their wine’s arrival to be announced. And, if that comes without having to mess around with a corkscrew, then so much the better.

It’s here, where ‘traditional in outlook’ meets ‘non-traditional wine drinker’ that I think the Helix could score. 

One UK supermarket buyer wearily described it to me as “the worst of both worlds: more expensive and no better than a screwcap, [with] none of the romance of a corkscrew”.

For markets such as the UK, which increasingly have no problem with the screwcap, this may be true. But, for emerging markets like China, or the more change-resistant parts of the US, I’d say Helix can probably go where the likes of Stelvin fears to tread.

Producers, I’m sure, won’t like it, since its implementation will involve a fair bit of bottling-line expense. But, if it’s the difference between a big Chinese order and nothing, they’ll suck it up.

In short, while I’m not sure about the fuzzy green angle, and plain disagree with the ‘resealing’ claims, I do think Helix is a good idea and an interesting innovation, in an industry that is chronically short of them. 

I just can’t help feeling that it’s the kind of thing Amorim ought to have been working on 20 years ago, rather than putting their fingers in their ears and pretending that cork taint wasn’t a big issue.

Comment by Chris Losh on www.just-drinks.com

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