Synthetic corks and screw-caps may have once been frowned upon by wine cognoscenti, but no longer, and the growing popularity of alternative closures has put the natural cork industry under pressure. In this month's just-drinks interview, Antonio Amorim, president of the world's largest natural cork producer Amorim & Irmaos, puts the case for cork.

If you want to know how an industry is performing, you can't do much better than ask the main man at a company which controls a quarter of the entire market. The Portugal-based Amorim group produces almost 3bn corks a year, and exports to around 93 countries. Put it this way: the next largest player is around a tenth of the size of Amorim, which boasted a turnover last year of EUR223m (US$297m).

Even so, the cork closure industry has had a tough few years. The problem of 'corked' wine, which is caused when compounds within the cork, chiefly 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, or TCA, taint the wine, has been with the wine trade since time immemorial. But consumers and wine companies alike have grown increasingly less tolerant of cork's foibles and more keen to embrace alternative closures which do not suffer from the same problem. Looking back at the industry's mistakes in handling this situation in the past, I ask Antonio Amorim how confident he is that such errors won't be repeated.

"The work that we have done and the feedback we're getting from the market allow us to be confident enough to know that those days are behind us," he says. "The vertically integrated supply chain that we have created, coupled with the investments that we have made into new technologies that we didn't have before, and the quality-control mechanisms that we have following up and checking the product throughout the whole process, allow us to be very confident. The feedback from the market follows suit."

Amorim points to the reduced number of complaints received by his company. "The opinion makers are giving us feedback from their tastings and (we receive) internal quality assessment from some of our key customers," he says. "The decline from 2002 to 2006 was 77% or 80% on TCA from cork from the Iberian peninsula."

Antonio Amorim

The general consumer perception of cork could have plummeted as a result of the TCA situation, but Antonio Amorim believes the consumer is already on-side. "I think the consumer is our biggest ally," he says. "Every single market survey that exists shows that the consumer prefers wine sealed with a cork. The decisions taken in the last few years towards alternative closures have mainly been taken by distributors following the opinions of some wine critics. But the consumer has a good image of cork - he associates cork with quality wine and vice versa. He knows it's a renewable, recyclable, environmental product that doesn't give a cheap image to the wine."

Amorim is keen also to suggest that any move away from cork is not in the interests of the consumer. In particular, he is unimpressed with the drive initiated by the UK supermarket chains to introduce screw-caps for some wine ranges.

"There are some supermarkets in the UK that now think they're going to impose their will on their consumers," he says." I don't think they're following the opinion of the consumer. Some time down the line, I think that will have an impact. I have always learned that the consumer is king and that we should listen to them. I believe that one of these days, consumers will express their preference in a more decisive way."

The rise of screw-cap of late should surely give Antonio Amorim cause for concern, with many wine sellers in the UK - Berry Brothers & Rudd being a good example - announcing the switch in the last few months. Antonio Amorim is keen, however, to suggest that this is more a fashion-related move that will have only a moment in the sun.

"I think that people jump too quickly to conclusions about alternative closures - that's applicable to both plastics and screw-caps," he says. "Six years ago, if you talked to any important person in the wine industry, they would have told you that plastic was going to take over. You ask the same people today and they say it's screw-caps, that plastic is not an interesting product any more. At the end of the day, when all these fashion trends wear out, people will realise that the only closure out there - with the new practices we've put in place - is going to be cork. It's natural and it brings value both to the wine and the environment - it works. People love cork and, with the quality procedures put in place, the cork is really a reliable product."

I put it to him that the switch may relate more to the price than the quality of the wine, but this argument holds no sway with Antonio Amorim. "It doesn't make a lot of sense. How can cork be reliable to seal the best quality wines in the world, and yet not be good enough to be used at the bottom end of the market? If we are good enough to be amongst the best, then we should be recognised to be good enough for the middle and lower end of the market."

As we start to wrap up, I ask Amorim how the world's number one cork producer views its direct competition. While it is obviously a position he relishes, it is clear that being at the top of the tree brings responsibilities. "Being the number one cork company that everybody in the industry looks up to, I think we need to use that position to drive and drag with us most of the other cork companies," he says. We're looking to set a minimum level in Europe for cork companies to be in business. Today, there are several smaller companies who are working in that direction as well.

"Amorim's a player in the market and at the end of the day we are fighting for our business primarily, but as the head of a cork association (Antonio Amorim heads up APCOR in Portugal), you have to look after everybody's interests, and you have to align everybody with what we are doing and what some of the other bigger players are doing as well."

With its troubles now firmly in the past, Antonio Amorim believes the future for the cork industry is bright. But with challenges coming from a variety of directions, it appears that the closure debate will continue to rage for some time to come.