LISBON When Chinese choose wine, the bottle-stopper matters. That fact is at the heart of a global battle between cork wine-bottle stoppers and man-made metal and plastic alternatives. In recent years, the competition has tilted decisively in favor of tradition thanks to consumer preferences in a nation that barely touched grape vintages a generation ago.
Between 2004 and 2009, cork stoppers lost market share in the face of competition from new alternatives, but since then have made a steady comeback. According to Amorim, Portugal's largest cork company, cork was used in at least 70% of the approximately 19 billion bottles of wine produced in 2017. And cork is moving further ahead because of soaring demand in China, which will overtake the U.K. as the world's second-largest market for wine by 2020, according to industry group Vinexpo -- though domestic brands account for 80% of the market. China already boasts the world's second-largest hectarage devoted to vineyards, just behind Spain.
Recent surveys by China's CTR Market Research group found overwhelming Chinese consumer support for natural stoppers, with 98.6% of urban wine drinkers saying cork is "beneficial," and 85% agreeing that the presence of a cork stopper influences wine selection.
"While we stress the flavor characteristics of cork in all our classes," said Taipei-based wine expert and educator Sherry Weng of AOW, "most see cork stoppers as part of a high-end lifestyle that makes the ceremony of opening a wine bottle more cultured and elegant." Dorian Tang, of Beijing-based importer ASC Fine Wines, added: "At formal banquets and business meetings, showing a wine with a cork shows knowledge of wine etiquette and gives face to the host."
Aside from lending a higher social status, reinforced by the use of cork stoppers for the most expensive and collectible French vintages, there is an even more characteristically Chinese motive for choosing wines with cork: fear of fakes. While few want to go on the record about the subject, it has been estimated that as much as 60% of wine sold in China could be rebottled, relabeled or worse.
Rumors abound about wine "factories" on offshore boats and, according to prize-winning wine writer Paul J. White, "expensive fakes from all over the world will show up in secondary markets like China, where there's money to spend and palates are less sophisticated." Producers have long lauded the material's aerating and environmental properties, but cork turns out to be invaluable in identifying the age of both the rarest and most common bottles of red wine.
"It's very difficult to fake a cork, which can show how well a wine has aged or been stored," said Weng, who became interested in the field when her father started collecting wines in 1995. Getting more technical, White added: "While few people know that you can put a syringe in cork to 'refresh' wine, it's also true that you can't simulate staining to the cork underside -- nor the difference between the top and bottom of the cork, the amount of expansion or fungus along the sides, which can only come from age. Along with that, in cases of highly prized wines, DNA or carbon dating can be used -- and the origins of most cork stoppers are traceable, too."
CHERRIES OR LYCHEES? Screwtops cannot match this advantage -- much to the satisfaction of cork companies in countries such as Portugal, the tiny European nation that contains 34% of the world's cork oak forests and accounts for 49% of the world's cork production. Amorim, the largest cork conglomerate (whose bottle stoppers and other products account for 7% of all Portugal's exports), revels in pointing out that winemakers in Australia and New Zealand -- countries that spearheaded the screwcap challenge -- have had to use cork in eight of every 10 wine bottles they send to China.
To reinforce this preference, the Portuguese cork association APCOR has been pushing a "No Aluminum" campaign in China to highlight cork's recyclable properties compared with metal screwcaps. That should help its product withstand coming changes in preferences as the thirst for wine in China spreads to younger people, who may be drawn to cheaper vintages that would utilize screwcaps.
China's sales have increased tenfold in recent years as consumers forsake traditional local rice wines for the Western, grape-based version, now increasingly associated with good health, Michelin-starred chefs, spring festival feasts, dinner deal-making and glitzy displays in supermarket wine corners. Reductions in tax barriers since 2008 have also helped, leading to such a craze that China now hosts numerous competitions for aspiring sommeliers.
"Though wine matching is challenging -- when we call a wine 'fruity like cherries,' their points of reference may be star fruit or lychees -- there is huge interest now among kids in their 20s," White said. "And Chinese wine writers sent abroad are treated like gods, even though most just want to take selfies of themselves in front of Chateau Latour."
Portugal -- with just over 10 million people -- will continue to be affected by choices made in a country nearly 10,000km away with a thirsty population about 130 times larger. "China and Portugal share so many remarkable cultural bonds and are historically linked at many levels, so it is very exciting to see that, well into the 21st century, both countries can further strengthen those bonds," noted Joao Rui Ferreira, president of APCOR.
He added: "The robust preference of the Chinese wine consumers for our products and the crucial role that [China] will play in the global wine trade will continue to keep our countries solidly aligned."
Portuguese producers are preparing for increased demand by trying to make their forests produce more per hectare -- trees can be stripped of their cork bark only once every nine years. But they are not just counting on the Chinese to be on the lookout for fakes.
"One more factor in China's love of cork is their honoring of tradition," White said. "What usually isn't recognized is that there's still a great respect for what has worked over the centuries."