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Goodbye Cork, Hello Sugarcane? Wineries Try New Plant-Based Closure

Allegrini will seal bottles with a new renewable alternative targeted at sustainable, organic and biodynamic wineries
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 13, 2013 11:30am ET

By Dana Nigro

I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening?

Bioplastics.

If you were remaking The Graduate in wine country this decade, there might be a great future in bioplastics. When organic, biodynamic and sustainable vintners look to bring their low-impact philosophies to their packaging, they often end up torn over what to do about closures.

Cork is the traditional choice, and it is a renewable material, unlike the alternatives: screw caps are made from mined metals, while synthetic corks are typically derived from petrochemicals. On the other hand, if some of your wine ends up flawed because even a small percentage of corks fail, that's outright waste—not exactly a sustainable practice either.

In late April, alternative-cork manufacturer Nomacorc unveiled a new type of closure—made from renewable polymers derived from sugarcane. The company is touting the line, called the Select Bio Series, as 100 percent recyclable, with a net zero carbon footprint. Like the original Select Series, it gives winemakers a choice of different oxygen transfer rates to prevent flaws from oxidation or reduction in certain types of wines.

"The skin on the outside will still allow the cork to be easily removed and inserted into bottle," said Nomacorc spokeswoman Whitney Rigsbee. "Aesthetically, it will have the look and feel of a natural cork with the wood grain; it's not going to be bright pink or bright white."

Nomacorc conducted 18 months of testing, including vetting the closure in its sensory lab to check for off aromas and flavors in bottled wines, but it remains to be seen how Select Bio performs in real life. Allegrini, a leading Italian producer that has worked with Nomacorc for years, is the first winery to publicly announce that it is doing a trial with Select Bio, at its Poggio San Polo winery in Montalcino, on its Sangiovese-based Rubio bottling.

Allegrini's chief winemaker, Nicola Biasi, called the trial "a natural evolution of our sustainability project" at San Polo—the "most advanced" of Allegrini's wineries in its efforts to reduce environmental impact. San Polo just earned the CasaClima sustainability certification, which evaluates all aspects of wine production—with a special focus on the energy-intensive aspects of aging and storage.

Nomacorc is making the product available to other customers for tests before it rolls out the closure for the 2014 bottling season. One eco-oriented client, Andrew McCarthy at Bodegas Castro Martin in Spain, chimed in immediately after Nomacorc posted its announcement on Facebook: "I have already requested samples for our Albariño!" 

How green is Select Bio really? Nomacorc wasn't willing to reveal yet exactly how it calculated the product's carbon footprint because that contains proprietary formulation data, but said it would provide a full life-cycle analysis when the product is released commercially. One of its scientists explained that since sugarcane captures carbon dioxide, the polymer itself has a negative footprint—enough to offset emissions from other raw materials and shipping.

As for recycling, Select Bio is treated as a No. 7 mixed plastic; while it has a lot of potential value for commercial recyclers, that means not every wine consumer will be able to toss the closures in their municipal recycling streams. (My New Jersey town just started accepting 7 this month.) So Nomacorc has partnered with large retailers such as Total Wine and Spec's to set up collection points and is now working with winery tasting rooms.

What do you think? Would an environmentally friendly closure influence your buying decisions in any way? Would you at least make the extra effort to drop it off at a collection point?

Next up: A new eco-friendly take on capsules

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  May 13, 2013 1:40pm ET
Sounds promising, indeed. Being made from a plant is in important plus. Now we need to determine how it performs in the real world. Synthetic corks don't seem to keep wine as well or as long as perfect corks do, nor as well as twist-off caps.
David Rossi
Napa, CA —  May 13, 2013 3:40pm ET
Definitely an improvement. Echoing Harvey's comment, we need to see how it performs.
Peter Weber
CQC - Forestville, CA —  May 16, 2013 1:56pm ET
It is gratifying to see that the synthetic closure industry has embraced sustainable practices, but with natural cork, the wine industry already has a proven closure with superior performance and better sustainable characteristics.
The OIV (International Organization of Wine) recommends that wineries calculating their carbon footprint include the carbon offset provided by the cork forest when choosing cork products. The result is that natural corks provide a net reduction in carbon footprint for wineries.
Unlike many claims of sustainability, the cork numbers are based on a peer-reviewed and published documentation. Details of the OIV ruling and the PriceWaterhouse LCO are available at http://www.corkqc.com/sustain/sustain2.htm.
TARA TAN KITAOKA
Tokyo.Japan. —  September 4, 2018 4:02am ET
Dear Dana,

May We know, which part of the sugar-cane was used to make the corks ???.
I have been looking at the sugar plants since I was a child.

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