Wine Talk: The Man Behind the World’s Largest Cork Producer

How have natural corks stayed on top of the wine world? Antonio Amorim’s efforts to make the cork business more innovative and sustainable have a lot to do with it

Wine Talk: The Man Behind the World’s Largest Cork Producer
Antonio Amorim has seen the closure industry change dramatically during his two decades at the helm of his family's 150-year-old cork business. (Courtesy of Amorim Cork)
Apr 21, 2023

For centuries, cork has been the primary method of closing wine bottles. Then in the late 20th century came cheaper stoppers and—though not without some controversy—the value end of the market was suddenly awash in bottles topped with colorful plastic “corks” or metal screwcaps. That would have been alarming enough for a family cork business founded in 1870.

But at the same time, high-end wineries were facing a problem with TCA taint, which could make wines smell and taste like musty cardboard or—in a way even worse for the producers—muted and boring, without being obviously flawed. The problem was largely blamed on flawed natural corks, whose plant phenols interact with chlorine and mold to form 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, and was even simply referred to as “cork taint.” That gave the alternative closures even more traction among winemakers and wine drinkers, though it turned out that TCA can develop in barrels, wooden pallets and winery equipment and cellars could be contaminated with similar compounds that produce musty aromas.

As chairman and CEO of Portugal-based Amorim Cork since 2001, Antonio Amorim has weathered all the upheaval and helped modernize a tradition-driven business. The family company began with Antonio’s great-grandfather producing cork stoppers for the local Port wine industry. Today, at more than 150 years old, Amorim Cork is the largest supplier of cork stoppers worldwide, with a presence in 20 countries. In addition to stoppers, its cork materials are used in the aerospace, automobile, construction and interior design sectors.

Born in 1967, Antonio earned a degree in international commerce from University of Birmingham in England and started with his family’s holding company as an intern before working his way through executive positions in different divisions. In 1996, he became chief executive for Amorim’s cork stopper division.

Among his core missions has been getting winemakers and consumers to not only trust cork again, by dramatically reducing the incidence of TCA taint to near zero, but to view it as the optimal closure for the world’s top-quality wines. He has done that by investing heavily in Amorim’s research and development arm and in new technology.

In addition, he has been working to get the message out that cork is also a sustainable product—not just to preserve the family business, but to ensure that Portugal’s cork oak forests are viable far into the future. These forests are not only important to the local economy, providing opportunities for economic and social development, but also to the entire world. They help capture large amount of carbon, play a key role in the Earth’s hydrological cycle, prevent soil erosion and are home to a diverse range of other plants and animals, among other benefits.

Amorim recently chatted with senior editor Aaron Romano about entering the family business, the importance of innovation and why sustainability has become a focus of his work.

Wine Spectator: Did you always expect that cork would be your calling, or did you have other career plans?

I started working in our company’s group in 1989, but I worked outside the cork industry. We had a very charismatic leader, my uncle, who basically said, “You’re not needed in the cork business at this time; you’re needed somewhere else. I think you need to get some experience elsewhere.”

I worked in other activities, such as real estate and hotel management. I also got involved in the management of the casino that the family owned and was part of the company’s board of directors that introduced a mobile phone, together with an American company called PacTel. I think that they were testing me. That was the original intention, but it was not communicated as such. Then there was an opportunity because some people left in 1995, and that’s when I was called in to take over the [cork] stoppers business.

 A row of machines used in manufacturing the Amorim XPur closures.
Technological advancements in cleaning and checking the closures have allowed Amorim Cork to develop new lines of both all-natural and technical corks. (Courtesy of Amorim)

What significant changes have happened since you took over as chairman and CEO?

I took over the management of the overall company in 2001. My uncle was really the driving force for the growth of the company from the 1950s onwards. I was called to step into some very big shoes, as you might imagine. We started to be confronted with some technical issues in a more direct manner than before … which has driven the creation of our research and development department. We started to look at every single stage of the process, from the harvest of the bark to the bottling line, and how each process could be improved. How can best practices improve the performance of the final product? We wanted to develop new reliable cork products that could compete with alternative closures in the market and improve the performance of cork, namely, to eliminate TCA. Today, we have a range of products completely different from what we had 25 years ago.

What advancements have you made to eliminate TCA from your products?

Twenty years ago, cork was being blamed for some technical issues that we could not control and deal with at the time. But 20 years have elapsed, the cork industry is completely different, and the technology available is different. So today, I think that we are on the offensive.

The first set of measures we introduced were “preventive measures” from cork to bottle. We created a gas chromatography technology capable of quantifying the level of TCA, if it existed at the time, so we had a benchmark to work towards. Also the introduction of new steam-distillation technology, because TCA volatilizes with steam, to make sure that we were getting rid of the TCA. It took 15 years and an investment of more than 300 million euros to put these in place.

 Two men in a large, old cork tree removing a section of cork bark.
Trees do not need to be cut down to produce cork; instead, once the trees are old enough, the bark is harvested every nine years and then grows back. (Courtesy of Amorim)

Do you think that the cork industry would have been forced to improve if it weren’t for the arrival of alternative closures during the last few decades?

The challenges were huge. Cork lost market share … Plastic stoppers came in very, very strong. They went up to about 4 billion probably 10 or 12 years ago, and now they are down to between 1 and 1.5 billion closures worldwide.

When alternative closures came into the market, we assumed the responsibility of being the market leader. When you have that responsibility, you cannot stop developing, and you cannot stop improving, and you cannot stop bringing new things out to keep the market preference for your products.

But you know, you need something inside you that tells you that you believe in what you’re doing. If you don’t, if we didn’t believe that cork could improve, we would never work to improve it. We have invested huge amounts of money to make sure that we would keep cork as the preferred closure. [Today] it represents two-thirds of the market share in the U.S. We believe that, with the average price of wine going up basically everywhere in the world, the preference for cork will also be there.

But there is also an element that has been playing a role over the last five or six years, which is the sustainability credentials of cork compared to alternative closures. So first, we must bring performance to our clients. Secondly, sustainability issues are becoming more and more important, namely because supermarkets answer to consumer demand by having more sustainable products, and cork is unique from a sustainable point of view.

Sustainability has become a core tenet of your family’s cork business. For those not familiar with the process, how is cork farming sustainable?

First, it comes from a forest, and forests are carbon sinks. Secondly, you’re talking about a unique species that is never cut down.

We did a study with a Portuguese university to investigate the carbon capture performance of an existing forest. And one ton of cork produced captures 73 tons of CO2. Just one cork stopper alone can capture around 400 grams of CO2. If glass today accounts for 25 or 30 percent of the carbon footprint of a wine bottle, the cork basically cancels the emissions generated by glass bottle production. The whole cork industry worldwide releases about 250,000 tons of CO2, but it captures 5.2 million [tons]. And this is, I believe, an absolutely unique feature: Our forests can also fight the advance of desertification.

Second, we just peel the tree bark once every nine years without interrupting the carbon capture. The tree regrows its “skin” every nine years, so we are talking about a natural material from a tree that will be cut down only at the end of its lifetime, typically beyond 170 to 200 years. Because cork does not require a lot of water to grow or to be maintained, the subsoil of the cork forest can create future water reserves.

 An aerial view of a cork forest in Portugal.
Cork oaks offer numerous benefits over other kinds of forestry crops: They store even more carbon when their bark is harvested than when it's not, they don't burn easily and they help an area retain water, helping prevent the desertification that is spreading as the climate changes. (Courtesy of Amorim)

What other things has the company done to improve its sustainability efforts, whether agricultural or manufacturing?

First, we are changing the way in which we are transporting our cork. We’re trying to ship corks in a completely different way, using bags more and more, using cardboard boxes, which can improve by 30 percent the number of corks we can put into a container. We have also changed transport to Northern Europe from road to boat, which also has a substantially better carbon footprint. We have built our facilities closer to the forest so that part of the production can be done very close to the forest.

We have an objective over the next three years to have 100 percent of our energy coming from renewable sources. So, we are investing in solar panels that will account for about 20 percent of our electricity needs and reusing cork biomass—cork leftovers from the cork production that can be used to heat our boilers.

Lastly, we have a program to invest in new cork plantations. We want to either densify the number of cork trees that exist, or we want to install new cork plantations to replace other species like, for example, eucalyptus [which is widespread in but not native to Portugal, uses a lot of groundwater and increases the risk of wildfires]. So, we have a plan over the next five years to plant 1.5 million cork trees.

What’s on the horizon for Amorim?

Our research and development team is focusing on how can our little cork add value to your wine? Why is it that if you bought a great bottle of Château Margaux in 2002, Wine Spectator says to drink it after 2008? What has happened in those years that the wine has been in a bottle, and why is the wine better six years after the bottling?

People in wineries have to be more focused on sustainability issues, and they are coming to talk to us to know how cork can improve the carbon footprint of their wine bottle. Cork will always outpace any alternative as far as the carbon footprint is concerned. If we want to live in a better world, we must first consume products with a better carbon footprint than others. And secondly, we need to invest more in carbon sinks. With cork, you have both. If we invest in more implementations, we will make this a better world because we will increase the amount of CO2 that will be captured.

People climate-change closures corks environment sustainability Portugal

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