Space age: Amorim teams up with NASA
Amorim has teamed up with NASA to create a cork shell to protect samples from Mars on their way back to Earth. And the company’s products are perfect for keeping wine at its optimum quality too.
Cork has a massive, and surprising, range of applications, and the list is growing. Already used widely in building, particularly for soundproofing, flooring and insulation, and common in shoes and shuttlecocks, it has recently been incorporated into supercars to surfboards, while also finding a fresh home in specialist spheres, such as bulletproof clothing and pollution control.
For the future, cork will be the chosen material for the most ambitious exploration of space to date. This is because the world’s largest cork producer, Amorim, is creating a cork shell to house samples sent back to earth from Mars, protecting them from temperatures up to 2,000°C, while allowing them to descend to earth without a parachute. NASA calls cork ‘nature’s polymer’.
But what makes it such a versatile product? For that, one must understand cork’s natural properties, a combination of characteristics that can’t be replicated by man. Not only is it flexible and lightweight, but it is also waterproof, elastic and extremely durable, as well as fire-resistant. And, it is the material’s peculiar and brilliant blend of features that has ensured its most famous use has remained in place for centuries: its role as the chosen product for stoppering fine wine.
Able to expand with the neck of a bottle to fill the tiny imperfections in the glass, it forms an impermeable, lightweight and long-lived barrier to oxygen. However, because of the 800 million cells in each natural cork stopper, a small amount of oxygen is expelled into the wine from the interior of the cork when the stopper is inserted into the bottle. This small injection of oxygen is of vital benefit to the wine later on in its development.
Furthermore, thanks to research carried out by Amorim, it is now understood that cork can bring beneficial phenolics to wine. Importantly, the interaction of wine and phenolics from cork stoppers produces a newly identified set of compounds that positively affect a wine’s colour and bitterness – called Corklins.
Meanwhile, natural cork has also been shown to enhance the perception of wine. While the material has for a long time been associated with premium drinks, research completed in late 2017 showed that wines bottled under cork are perceived to be better quality than those closed with a screwcap. Led by professor Charles Spence of Oxford University’s cross-modal research lab, the experiment asked 140 participants to rate identical wines bottled under cork and screwcap, with a particular focus on the impact of a cork popping on the perception of taste. Overall, participants rated the same wine as 15% better quality when served under a cork in comparison to screwcap. The wine under a cork was also rated as 20% more appropriate for a celebration and 16% more for inciting a celebratory mood.
But, for all the many positives, both in terms of the product’s performance and perception, there has been one issue casting a long shadow over cork – and this concerns a risk that this special material might taint the wine it comes into contact with, primarily with a chemical compound called TCA, which can be formed in the cork through the interaction of fungi and chlorinated compounds. Due to major changes in the harvesting and processing of cork bark, cork-derived TCA-taint is now extremely rare. Nevertheless, any wine producer wants an assurance that their choice of packaging won’t negatively affect the product. As do those buying and serving cork-closed wines to their customers.
Furthermore, when in the past cork-stopper makers have been able to offer such promises, it has usually concerned agglomerated closures, where granules of cork are treated and then glued together. While these provide a good solution, they don’t have the premium feel of a single-piece natural cork stopper.
But, in a revolutionary breakthrough from Amorim, wine producers can now source in commercial quantities and at affordable prices a whole cork stopper with a non-detectable TCA guarantee, meaning that if the compound happened to be in the cork, it would be at such a low level, no human could sense it. The solution, called ND-Tech, follows extensive investment by Amorim on scanning technology that sees each individual stopper checked for taints in as little as 12 seconds – and that time is set to come down further. Such has been the power of the proposition, that today, more than 1,600 wineries across all continents are now using ND-Tech stoppers to seal their products.
Most prominent among these is Domaine Laroche. This traditional and high-class Chablis producer became something of a poster boy for screwcap closures when former owner, Michel Laroche, announced a complete switch to the aluminium solution in 2006, citing poor-quality cork as the reason. However, from the 2015 vintage onwards, enticed by the advancements at Amorim, and the advent of ND-Tech, Laroche returned to cork, aware that these stoppers offer all the advantages of this remarkable natural material, along with its associations with fine wine, and with no risk of taint.
So, the message is simple. If cork is good enough for one of the wine world’s most exacting producers of fine delicate white wines, then it is good enough for you. And with Amorim ND-Tech, you really can enjoy the many benefits of a whole natural cork without any of the risks. That means now is the time to focus on the positives of this remarkable material, not just for space exploration, but also for fine wine development and safe-keeping.
This sponsored profile first appeared in the guide to London’s Top 50 Most Powerful Somms by Wine List Confidential – a publication from the drinks business.