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Wine stopper wars

Wine stopper turf wars

While screwcaps’ hold on the market seems to be loosening, new developments in natural cork, Diam (a cork stopper with the mechanical and organoleptic security of a screwcap) and synthetics mean that wine producers are spoilt for choice when it comes to wine stopper power.

A few years ago, the onward march of screwcaps as the dominant wine bottle closure seemed unstoppable. Most discussions about closures focused on performance and their consistent performance at a low price.

It just seemed that it would be a matter of time before they would become the most widely used wine-bottle closure, especially when the two leading screwcap manufacturers both launched new liners that offered different levels of oxygen transmission, giving winemakers the control that previously had only been possible with in-neck (or inner seal) closures.

But things are changing. Inner-seal closures – cork, technical corks and new-generation synthetics – are fighting back.

People are realising that there is more to closures than simply performance, and significant markets have decided that they don’t really like screwcaps all that much, even though they are convenient and do a good job.

Even in countries that were almost exclusively screwcap, there’s been a small shift back towards in-neck closures such as Diam or natural cork.

Acceptance versus preference

Carlos de Jesus of cork maker, Amorim, has [naturally!], a positive outlook about cork’s future: “It is very important we tell the difference between consumer acceptance and consumer preference, because these are two very different things,” he emphasises.

“We accept a lot of things in life without preferring them – for example, the car I drive is not necessarily the car I have preference for.”

His point is that surveys that look at consumer acceptance of closures could give a misleading picture. Could it be that many consumers accept screwcaps, without preferring them?

“Acceptance and preference are different at all price points, but the higher you go in price the more important the difference becomes. But even at the lower price points, preference still matters,” says De Jesus.

He thinks that we’ve focused on performance while ignoring some of the most important things about wine bottle closures: the nature of the experience.

“All the aspects of opening a bottle of wine are a lot more important than we realise,” says De Jesus.

“In our consumer research for Helix we began to identify that these aspects of opening a bottle are very important. Different stoppers provide different levels of engagement. A cork can be an impressive piece of nature.”

He continues: “We need to understand more about the importance of the sound of the bottle being opened. I imagine that if you polled people around the world, the sound of a bottle being opened would be in their top 10 favourite sounds.

“It’s universally recognised. That pop is always associated with the happy moment of consumption. Other industries spend hundreds of millions of dollars to create that happy moment. There’s so much cultural interest and heritage.”

De Jesus also thinks it’s wrong to brand some markets as anti-cork, even if screwcaps are the dominant closure.

“Even in screwcap-friendly markets such as the UK, Germany and Australia, on the occasions when people are willing to spend more the preference for cork still works,” he says.

“It’s not possible to say ‘this market doesn’t accept cork’. Having said that, two of the most exciting markets for anyone in the world exporting wine today are the US and China.

The numbers there are stronger in very much favouring cork.” He cites a May 2017 study in China, based on Nielsen data from hypermarkets in 24 Chinese cities. This researched the 100 best-selling wines in terms of revenues, and then looked at the closures used.

Of this number, 95% were sealed with cork, and the cork-sealed wines sold for an average price of 138 RMB (£16), while the wines with other closures sold at a 33% lower average price of 104 RMB – 65% of these wines were Chinese and 35% were imported. All but one were red.

Source: thedrinksbusiness.com

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