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In this “Next Round” episode, host Zach Geballe chats with Carlos de Jesus, director of marketing and communications at Amorim Cork. Amorim has been operating for over 150 years and produces cork for a plethora of different industries, from wine and spirits to Birkenstock sandals. Wine stoppers account for 70 percent of the cork industry. And although alternative wine stoppers made of plastic and glass are beginning to hit the market, de Jesus elucidates why cork should be irreplaceable.

Not only does the interaction between cork and the bottled wine profoundly affect its taste, but the harvesting of cork is essential to our ecosystem and keeps food on thousands of agricultural workers’ tables. Tune in to learn about this often overlooked aspect of the wine world, as well as the various high-tech quality-control tactics being developed to ensure that the cork being produced today is the best the world has to offer.

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Zach: From Seattle, Wash., I’m Zach Geballe, and this is a “VinePair Podcast” “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations in between our regular podcast episodes in order to focus on the range of issues and stories in the drinks world. Today, I’m speaking with Carlos de Jesus. He is the director of marketing and communications at Amorim Cork in Portugal. Carlos, thank you so much for your time.

Carlos: Thank you for having me.

Z: My pleasure. This is a topic that I personally, as a wine lover and professional, find fascinating, because I think so many people who drink wine don’t really think much about the cork, except in the 10 seconds it takes them to get it out of the bottle. But can you tell us a bit about what the basic steps are in actually manufacturing a cork?

C: Well, there are dozens of steps and dozens of years before we are able to to pull the cork from a bottle of wine and hear that iconic sound — it’s actually one of the few culturally relevant sounds across different cultures, different age groups, even different continents, you name it. It is something that we all recognize as a carrier of normally good news, if not straight-out celebration. But before that iconic moment happens, most people don’t realize that you cannot touch a cork oak tree (where we harvest the bark from) until the tree is about 25 years old. Now, the first harvest happens after a quarter of a century but does not give us cork good enough to make a wine stopper. And by law, you cannot go back to harvest that cork again until at least nine years have gone by. But that second harvest still does not give you the top-quality cork that we look for. So off the bat, you have 25 plus nine, and then plus another nine years. So 43 years of growth and care before that cork is ready to produce top-quality cork. Then that’s when the journey begins — it’s a very, very long time. Once the cork is harvested, which happens between June and August, depending on the weather, and because the weather is changing and the climate is changing, we need to adapt sometimes and start a little bit earlier in June or late May. But essentially, it’s a summer activity. And once that bark is harvested, it goes into a quality- control perimeter for the next six to nine months before each one of those planks is assessed and analyzed and it is decided what can be done with it. What can be done today with cork ranges from wine stoppers, of course, and for spirits, that’s still 70 percent of our approximately 800 million euros in annual sales. But the vast majority of the quantity does not end up in the wine bottle. It goes from anything that ranges from flooring to aerospace and defense materials, to our beloved Birkenstock shoes.

Z: As for cork that does go for wine and spirits bottles, maybe not from a technical standpoint, but what are the qualities that set it apart from cork that is for less rarified use?

C: Well, we’re looking at some key factors here that include, for example, the thickness of the cork plank. It has to have the right thickness for cork to be pumped horizontally. So if it’s too narrow, you’re not going to have the diameter necessary to punch out a cork. It also has to have a uniformity in the cellular structure that makes it look and feel very, very smooth. This has a direct bearing upon the oxygen transfer rate, for example, that cork is going to allow once it’s inserted in the bottle. Another incredibly important aspect, and certainly today, is the sensory performance of that cork. For example, one thing that we stopped doing is punching corks or even doing anything with the part of the bark that it’s in contact with the soil. Why is that? Because if you plot a distribution curve for the precursors of TCA — we’re not talking about TCA at this stage necessarily, but certainly the precursors of TCA — if you plot the distribution of those microorganisms (that in certain circumstances can create that problem in cork) then you’ll see most of them will be, not surprisingly, closer to the soil where the humidity is higher, where the everything is much easier for these little fellas to survive there, rather then further up on the tree trunk. So it’s an incredibly complex product. But again, you’re looking at an incredibly complex cellular structure. Just to give our listeners an idea, nature manages to pack, on average, 800 million cells into that little cylinder that you pull from a bottle top, and each one of those cells has an incredible elastic memory. Each one of those cells, when you compress the cork, even if you compress it over decades and decades and even centuries, when you release that pressure, it immediately tries to get back to its original size. And that’s why cork works well on a bottle or in our shoes, as I was joking about the Birkenstocks and many other brands that use cork shoes. But crucially, each one of those cells also carries a little bit of a gas that is very similar to the air that we breathe. And that, once inserted in the bottle, will help shape the evolution of that wine in a very, very unique way. So it’s quite a fascinating material, to be honest with you.

Z: Absolutely. I think, as I said at the beginning, it’s something that most people, even wine lovers, take mostly for granted. But that’s one of the reasons why we were really interested to get a little more detail about the manufacturer. So can you tell us a little bit about the history of Amorim? In addition to what we think of as the traditional cork, what are maybe some of the other cork-based products that you guys offer for wine and spirits?

C: Well, we celebrated 150 years as a company in 2020, so not a lot of partying— the plans we had for celebration in 2020 went quickly out the window. That was a little unfortunate, obviously, because it’s a big benchmark. The important thing is that we were able to keep our supply chain intact. We produce 5.5 billion corks every year. That’s a lot of bottles that need to be stopped, because if you fail, then people simply would not have wine on their supply chain. The whole team — there are about 4,300 people at Amorim, in dozens of countries, on all continents — we were able to maintain that supply chain intact. And I think when you look back on 2020, you will have at least one great thing: seeing the ability of people to come together in so many circumstances throughout the world. Here, that same thing happened. Those 5.5 billion stoppers are not all the same. In fact, they reflect the myriad of price points, wine types, wine qualities, and wine varietals that you have from all over the world. To give you an idea of a spectrum, a cork stopper could be as much as three dollars a unit, or a cork stopper can be four or five cents on the dollar. But again, that only reflects the myriad of types of wines that we can buy.

Z: I know that Amorim has a history of making what we’d consider classic corks. But also, as you said, you do meet a wide range of demands throughout the industry. Are there some products that our listeners — because we definitely have listeners who are in the wine trade itself — would be interested in knowing about?

C: When you say that we make classical stoppers, well, yes, we can make a classical stopper. What you and most people would consider a classical stopper — a natural whole cork stopper carved as a single piece from the bark — of a bottle of wine we’d like to drink but unfortunately we don’t, because it’s hundreds or thousands of euros a bottle. That cork goes through rigorous quality control. To give you an example of the type of quality control that it’s subjected to, it goes through a machine. It’s a technology called “NDtech,” as in undetectable technology. It’s a machine that has to find, or not, as little as 0.5 of a nanogram per liter of TCA, and it has to do that in seconds, with such a reliability that we are able to go to our clients and say, “Yes, there is absolutely no detectable TCA in that cork.” We do this dozens of millions of times every year. I asked one of the scientists to try to explain that because it was difficult to wrap my mind around that. What’s 0.5 nanogram? What does that mean, exactly? I know the pharmaceutical industry does quality control in parts per billion, but that sounds easy. The analogy that they gave me was that it’s the equivalent of finding one drop of water in 800 Olympic-sized swimming pools. A drop of water in 800 Olympic-sized swimming pools in seconds with reliability, because otherwise, we’d be in trouble. So I don’t think there’s a lot of classicism on that kind of approach. What I think it embodies is something that I came to believe more and more — it’s a blueprint for a lot of the problems that we collectively are facing today as a society, and that is the ability to grab something that nature gives you and wrap technology around that to make it even better. A natural whole cork stopper or a technical cork stopper made out of micro-agglomerated granules is exactly that. We grab that unique cell structure that nature gave us. NASA, by the way, calls that cell structure “nature’s own polymer.” We grabbed that, we wrapped technology around it, and made a product that was good, but had a problem. That product had a “small” problem — small because it’s measured in nanograms, but not that small — because it has a big affinity with 2,4,6-Trichlorophenol, that molecule that can ruin a bottle of wine even at very few nanograms. So it was quite a challenge. But I really think going forward that the more we bring nature and technology together — not as mutually exclusive players, but as a symbiotic approach to life in general —I think if we look at that, it’s not just the cork industry that will be able to grow as solidly as we have been for many years, but some of the other propositions can benefit from it also.

Z: So I know we’ve talked a lot about TCA as the biggest issue that consumers, producers, and obviously cork manufacturers like yourself face with cork. But are there other things that you’re also checking for in terms of quality that may be also interesting to know about?

C: Well, TCA was never the No. 1 or even the No. 2 quality problem that cork had. In fact, today, we can say with absolute confidence that we have defeated TCA — we just launched two new technologies on the 19th of January. These technologies help to extend to natural whole cork stoppers the type of guarantees and the type of performance that we already had with micro-agglomerated stoppers at Amorim for a long, long time. But we needed to check for other things. It has to do with, for example, the structure of the cork on the inside. The structural integrity of a cork is a function of what you see on the outside, but also what lies on the inside. You cannot destroy that cork to look at what’s going on inside. But if there is one canal from one end to the other, then you would have a lot of oxygen ingress into that bottle, and that would lead to premature oxidation of the wine. You don’t want that. So you have to develop technology. A lot of this technology is powered by algorithms that are incredibly powerful. But today we have the ability to employ more than a dozen quality- control checkpoints that need to be to be accounted for before a good cork is considered exactly that. A good cork today is very different from what it was 20 years ago.

Z: And I have a silly question, but I’m going to just ask it anyway. Do you, as a person who works with cork all the time, have a preferred method or a preferred tool for removing a cork from a bottle?

C: Yes. I’m not going to refer to actual brands, but I think we all know what we’re talking about if I say that it has to have a double lever, and it has to have the right coating on the actual screw. In Spain, there’s an amazing collection of corkscrews, and when you look at some of these pieces, it makes you nostalgic for the days when people took a lot of care to make artifacts. In the world of wine, we should not lose sight of that.

Z: You like what I would consider a traditional waiter’s corkscrew — nothing big and elaborate like some of our listeners definitely have at home.

C: I think they are beautiful to look at, but I don’t use them at home. I think my wife opted to use some of the heirlooms that we have there. But yes, a waiter’s corkscrew is very practical. It works and is reliable. If I get home and open a bottle of wine, that’s what I would use.

Z: Very cool. I just have one last question for you, Carlos. You talked a little bit about the scope of different products that Amorim makes. Obviously, we’re in an era where there are — maybe more than ever before — a number of different ways to close a wine or spirits bottle, whether that’s a screw cap, or a glass stopper, or whatever. I’m a romanticist at heart, so I love corks just because of the tradition, but I also recognize that is one argument for cork. I would love for you to make an argument — maybe you make a romantic argument, but also maybe just a very practical one — about why cork is still, at least in your eyes, the best way to close a bottle of wine or spirits.

C: Well, it’s not just in my eyes. Seven out of every 10 bottles of wine in the world today in the 21st century are closed with cork, to give everybody an idea. There’s no exact single source of information about how many bottles are filled and stopped every year around the world, but we’re pretty convinced that it’s somewhere between 19.5 and 20 billion bottles that are filled and stopped every year around the world. If you think that’s a lot of wine, yes, it is. But there’s a lot of wine that is not even considered here: everything that goes into a can, or a bag in a box. But of that 19.5 billion, 12 billion are closed with cork. Screw caps are about 5 to 5.2 billion. But then you still have a lot of plastic out there. Single-use plastic wine stoppers in the 21st century make no sense whatsoever. When you look at cork, you look at cork as the right option. It’s not just because all of us fell in love with opening a bottle of wine that had the cork in it. So something must have gone on throughout that interaction between the wine, the glass, and the cork. There are enough technicalities that that can be an entirely different podcast. We could do that one day for sure. But the technical aspects of the wine and cork interaction, we’re just beginning to understand them now. Then, you have that cultural relevance about wine and that sound that I mentioned a while ago. If you believe, as I believe, that there is a strong cultural role in wine consumption, then that certainly is important. But there’s a third item here that is only going to get more important, not less — and that has to do with sustainability. You can harvest cork without ever damaging a species that has been around for millions and millions of years. The cork forests of the western Mediterranean basin support one of the 36 hotspots of biodiversity around the world. If you think of some of the other 35, you think of places like Borneo, Costa Rica, the Amazon, the Pacific Northwest, actually. So we’re talking about a wealth that goes well beyond the borders of Portugal, and Portugal is the largest producer of cork in the world. But the migrations of species and birds do not obey political borders, as we all know. Also, regulation of water cycles — it’s absolutely fundamental that you have native species to protect the southern European flank from the advances of the North African desert. The list just goes on and on and on. It actually creates the best paid agricultural job in the world, which is harvesting cork: 135 euros per day. It affixes people to the land, and each one of these corks can retain as much as 562 grams of CO2. One single stopper. So when you look at where the world should be heading, how can you discount what is not only the only truly sustainable option for wine stoppers, but what is actually a blueprint of how you can balance people, planet, and profit? That’s what the cork industry does, that’s what the cork forests offer, and that’s what the wine industry makes possible. As I alluded to a little while ago, 70 percent of the value created for cork still comes from wine stoppers. So the good news is that when you open a bottle of wine, you’re not only opening a bottle of a great product, you’re also making a direct, measurable, and demonstrable contribution to maintain one of the world’s best sustainable stories. That’s what wine is all about, also.

Z: Well, I think that’s a wonderful place to leave it. Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate your insight and knowledge about this part of the wine industry that we don’t think about all that much. So thank you so much, and I look forward to chatting again in the future.

C: My pleasure.

Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair podcast. If you love this show as much as we love making it, please give us a rating on review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or whatever it is you get. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City, and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit.

Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.

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