August 2013 Issue of Wines & Vines

Advances in Closure Quality

Suppliers foresee 100% TCA detection, better oxygen management

by Andrew Adams
    Corks as an anti-counterfeit device?

    One potential application of Cork Supply’s new system for analyzing the internal structure of corks could be in the developing field of anti-counterfeiting measures. The company’s research director, Ana Cristina Mesquita, said each cork is so different and distinct they could be traced.

    If the provenance of a wine is called into question, Cork Supply could conceivably trace an individual cork back through the supply chain to confirm that the cork was indeed part of a specific lot that was purchased by the winery and used during bottling. “This technology can be a way to work against fraud,” she said. “Each individual cork has its fingerprint.”
In the highly competitive wine closures industry, suppliers continue to focus on improving quality control, facilities and their final products as they seek any edge in convincing wineries to pick their closures.

Two cork suppliers are working to perfect automated systems to detect sensory defects they say will give them a 100% guarantee against faults; Amorim and O-I glass developed a twist-off cork, and alternative closure manufacturer Nomacorc continues to research how to improve oxygen management in the bottle and during the bottling process in general.

In a Wines & Vines report from the August 2012 issue (see “Closures War at a Standstill”), Dustin Mowe, the president of Portocork America, a subsidiary of cork giant Amorim Group, described developing an automated process for detecting cork taint as the industry’s search for the Holy Grail. “The most exciting thing to the hit the industry in the past five years will be this cork-by-cork testing machine,” he said.

But as Portocork works to unveil its system, Cork Supply is developing its own automated screening technology. The firm already offers its DS100 “dry soak” inspection program to provide a 100% guarantee for cork orders. This process, however, is time consuming.

Eliminating sensory and consistency faults
Ana Cristina Mesquita, Cork Supply’s head of research and development in Porto, Portugal, said the company’s research team is developing the “DSX100” process to eliminate sensory flaws and sort and classify individual corks by their external and internal structure to eliminate cork variation. “Our vision is to do individual cork testing, and to assure bottle by bottle, because every bottle has to be assured for our customers,” she said.

Mesquita said that in 2012 Cork Supply researchers devised DS100+, a non-destructive process for detecting TCA and other sensory flaws in corks. The next step is to automate that process at production speed and volume. “As we speak, DS100+ is already real through our laboratory prototype, yet at low throughput,” Mesquita said. But with the assistance of partner companies that specialize in analytics and robotics, she said the company is planning to unveil an industrial-level application by the end of the year. “We are very confident about the approach we are using. We are not developing a quality-control tool, we are developing something industrial.”

In addition to the DS100+, Mesquita said the company is working on its X100 process.  The system uses a non-invasive analysis to provide information about the internal structure of the cork. By using the system, Cork Supply claims it is able to classify corks based on their external and internal structures. Data gleaned from the method is being run through a computer system to establish sorting parameters.

What they are finding is that each cork has its own distinct structure, and there can be huge variation between corks made from the same production lot of cork bark. The complex classification system is an attempt to take this variation, which has always been a challenge for the cork industry, and categorize it and make sense of it.

Mesquita said the new system could enable Cork Supply to offer wineries natural corks with the same uniform structure and consistent oxygen transfer rates (OTR) as synthetic corks. The patented system, she said, will “harness, qualify and categorically sort the variety Mother Nature already makes available.”

She said a second-generation prototype should be operating this year, and a working system should be in place by 2014. Cork Supply will offer more details about how the technology will be implemented in the near future. One application is that the company could pinpoint which type of cork would fit a specific wine. “When we are ready, we can suggest for this wine style you can use this category of cork, and for this wine style another cork,”
she said.

Cork Supply is aiming toward combining the two systems into what it’s calling DSX100. Mesquita said such technology didn’t exist 10 years ago, but Cork Supply has been proactive in applying it to its production process. “As the computing and technology advances tremendously, it is our task to ‘tailor-make’ the new technologies to the cork industry,” she said.

Mesquita has been studying cork production since 1998. She said it’s an exciting time to be in the industry, when new technology could dramatically improve how corks are produced. “It’s very exciting and very stressful at the same time, because no one has tried to do this individual analysis, and we produce hundreds of millions of corks a year,” she said. “We are working on state-of-the-art technology for the sensory, for the visual and for the structural analysis.”

Like Cork Supply’s DS100, Portocork offers a one-by-one cork-inspection process that employs sensory staff, but the process is constrained by sensory fatigue. Mowe said Portocork uses a minimum of three sensory panelists but limits them to evaluating 200 corks in the morning, another 200 before lunch, 200 after lunch and 200 before the end of the day. It’s a thorough process, but it’s laborious and expensive.

Mowe said the cost of the sensory screening makes it an option for only
the top tier of wine producers, and it’s
a burden on the company’s sensory staff. He said he thinks the biggest order ever put through the process was around 14,000 corks.

Cork taint and honeybees
Mowe said the company’s research and development team in Portugal has been working for years to improve cork quality and prevent sensory faults. This research spawned some creative thinking that included reviewing the use of bees, which can be trained to alert to the presence of certain smells just like dogs. Mowe said the bees could identify TCA-contaminated materials, but once they smelled it they couldn’t track back to it again. He admits he’s unsure how to incorporate a hive of honeybees into a cork-production facility.

Around 2009, the team led by Dr. Miguel Cabral focused on developing an automated process to inspect every cork. The team and some technical partners eventually designed a system employing a carousel and sniffer technology. Corks drop into individual stainless steel trays and are gently warmed as the carousel spins the trays around toward the detection sniffer station. After the corks are warmed, two small ports open, revealing jets that blast the corks with nitrogen gas to lift any TCA off the cork. If TCA is detected, the machine will indicate the cork is tainted.

It’s the next step that’s proving challenging, Mowe said. Right now technicians need to stop the machine and clean the chamber to prevent any false positive results during the next cycle.

Once a cleaning cycle can be added to the machine, Mowe expects a fully automated process that could run through any cork order to ensure it’s taint free.  “We feel this is the future. This is something we’ve been working on for some time and believe in,” he said. “This is not something that’s 10 years out.”

The new twist-off ‘Helix’
At the Vinexpo tradeshow in Bordeaux, France, this June, Amorim and Owens-Illinois (O-I), one of the largest glass
container producers, announced the results of a collaboration to develop the new Helix cork closure. The effort has spanned more than four years and cost nearly $7 million. While similar in appearance to a “T-top” or bar-top closure, the Helix is a cork that twists off from
a custom-designed bottle with grooves
on the interior of the neck.

The companies say the closure is intended for “popular premium” wines priced between $7 and $12, and which are made to be opened soon after release.

O-I and Amorim claim to have conducted extensive market research in France, the U.K., U.S. and China, and the Helix scored high with consumers who liked that the cork can be used to reseal the wine and still offered the distinctive “pop” when pulled out of the bottle. The companies claim wines aged for 24 months with the Helix did not taste different than control wines. The corks also performed well in bottles lying horizontal for 30 days at temperatures around 95°F.

The cork is expected to be available in European markets first and is priced slightly higher than standard natural corks. In their announcement, O-I and Amorim said wineries would also need to modify their bottling lines for the new closure.

Custom QC and ‘unfounded rumors’
Cork producer M.A. Silva reports it just completed building a 400-square-foot expansion to the lab at its production facility in Santa Rosa, Calif. The company also hired an assistant lab manager and installed a new infrared spectrometer to analyze cork coatings. Better coating analysis helps the company fine-tune coating formulas to ensure good insertion, extraction and sealing performance, said chief operations officer Michael Riel.

The added equipment and staff is intended to help the company offer clients custom QC protocols on their cork selections. “Our market approach is to partner with each of our customers while providing them with the highest level of quality and customer service,” Riel said. “To maintain the ability to do so we continually invest into technologies and people that enable us to evolve, improve and offer more. Our goal is to be much more than a commodity supplier, and quality control and product technology investments create a real benefit for our customers.”

Diam Closures, distributed in the United States by G3, unveiled an expanded range of permeability options for its 1, 3 and 5 closures. The company claims it has three patents pending for its standardized process to measure closure permeability.

And in a sign of the competitive nature of the closure segment, the French company released a statement early this year denouncing what it called “unfounded rumors” being circulated by one its competitors seeking to curtail the firm’s growing sales. “The unfounded rumors are false, and they were spread by our competitors due to Diam’s strong success,” said Dominique Tourneix, Diam Bouchage’s CEO. “Diam products do meet both EU and FDA certification standards.”

Diam is part of the Oeneo group that also includes Seguin Moreau cooperage. More than half of the company’s 6,000 clients are in Europe, and 10% are in the United States. The company employs a unique process using supercritical carbon dioxide to essentially volatize and flush TCA and other contaminants out of the raw cork granulate it uses to form its molded closures. The process is similar
to how caffeine is pulled out of coffee.

The granulate is tested by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry before and after being treated with supercritical CO2, and the finished closures are also tested
to ensure they meet required dimensions and functionality. When the products
arrive in the United States, G3 performs its own round of analysis to double check for sensory faults and for performance.

Nomacorc unveils ‘zero-carbon’ Select Bio
In the synthetic closure segment, Nomacorc unveiled its new Select Bio closure at this year’s Intervitis Interfructa tradeshow in Germany. Malcolm Thompson, the company’s vice president of strategy and innovation, said the new product is essentially a carbon neutral extension of Nomacorc’s existing
Select series. He said the firm has made sustainability a priority for some time.
“It’s embedded in our culture, you may say.”

Raw materials account for 80% of the carbon footprint of Nomacorc’s closures, and most of the polymer materials Nomacorc uses for its products are derived from petrochemical sources to create food-safe polyethylene packaging material. That meant the company’s engineers had to seek out a natural source, and that search led them to Brazil, which is the world’s second-largest producer of sugar cane-derived ethanol. Thompson said the process of deriving ethanol from sugar cane could be modified to produce the materials needed to form its closures.

The Bio closure will be manufactured in Europe, where Nomacorc’s production facilities are all powered with renewable sources. The company will be testing the Bio with certain clients through 2013 with the idea to launch it by bottling season in 2014. “The reception in the market has been amazing,” Thompson said. He added the Bio would be produced in the United States soon.

The Bio is priced higher than the rest of Nomacorc’s Select series. The closure is also slightly larger, although Thompson said it should just be a simple “drop in” on bottling lines.

Nomacorc’s existing line of Select 100, 300, 500 and 700 series closures offer winemakers varying levels of oxygen transfer rates. The Bio will be available in the 100, 300 and 500 series—although not the 700 because Thompson said most wineries looking to use the Bio likely will have made “sulfite minimal” wines. Like the rest of Nomacorc’s line, the Bio is completely recyclable.

The company is also currently rolling out its updated Nomasense oxygen analyzer, which can calculate total package oxygen, or TPO. Instead of measuring DO and headspace oxygen, then running over to a computer to input the amounts to find TPO, Thompson said winery staff can run the analysis right on the bottling line. “It’s user-friendly and really kind of self-intuitive,” he said. “We really think we’ve taken this to a next level.”

Nomacorc claims to now close approximately 44% of all wine consumed in the United States and about 13% of the estimated global production of 18.5 billion bottles of wine per year.

Thompson said Nomacorc continues its research into improving oxygen management at all stages of winemaking. While the company has been focused on closures, Thompson said it quickly become apparent that oxygen management is a crucial but little-understood element of winemaking. “Even at bottling there still remains a tremendous opportunity to optimize that process,” he said. “There’s a lot we can do to help our customers and the industry with that.”

Thompson said he couldn’t be too specific, but he hinted the company would soon unveil better analysis technology to improve headspace oxygen management during bottling. “We’re generally an innovation-driven company, and we’re growing and continue to grow, and we’ve got a lot of things in the pipeline.”

As simple as sealing a bottle of wine may appear, the millions of dollars and research hours spent to improve and standardize the closure segment show that the only really simple thing about bottle closures is removing them.

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