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While corks may still be the preferred closure for wine bottles, a report published in the UK by consultants, Wine Intelligence, has revealed that alternatives to cork are becoming steadily more popular. Ben Cooper reports.

In spite of strong consumer scepticism, it appears that alternatives to the traditional cork closure for wine bottles are becoming increasingly accepted in the UK market, according to a report entitled Closures: The Consumer View 2004-05, published by wine industry consultants, Wine Intelligence.

The results of a survey of consumer closure preferences carried out for the report by Wine Intelligence indicate that alternatives such as screw-caps and synthetic corks are slowly becoming more acceptable to UK wine consumers. Moreover, there are strong indications that the particular resistance to screw-caps is lessening.

The report is based on its second annual independent survey of consumer attitudes to wine bottle closures, comprising 1,018 online respondents, which was conducted in August and September 2004.

While 97% of consumers still find natural cork acceptable, this is down from 99% in 2003. Moroever, there are significant changes from last year's survey in terms of consumer attitudes towards alternative closures. Those who entirely reject screw-caps have fallen to 36% of consumers, down from 59% last year, while 18% of consumers now say they like buying wine with screw-caps compared with just 7% in 2003.

Synthetic corks also seem to be gaining popularity. Some 29% of consumers say they now like buying wine with synthetic corks compared with 17% last year, and just 10% now say they don't like buying wine with these types of closure.

"This year's survey clearly demonstrates that seismic shifts are occurring in consumer perceptions of what makes an appropriate wine bottle closure," says Wine Intelligence managing director, Richard Halstead. "There's no doubt that natural cork is still the closure of choice, but consumers now accept that there are other ways of sealing wine. We're not about to see the death of the ritual of uncorking a bottle of wine, but there's no doubt that screw-caps have established critical mass in the UK market."

Interestingly, conservatism regarding wine closures does not appear to be a preserve of older wine buyers. According to Wine Intelligence, wine consumers over the age of 45 are more likely to be in favour of alternative closures than younger consumers. The research also found that men in general appear to be more supportive of natural cork.

The findings come at a time of unprecedented change in the way wine bottles are sealed, as wine producers have sought to improve on traditional methods. Producers have turned to new closures in a bid to reduce the occurrence of 'tainted' wine, which can be caused by either oxidation or cork 'taint', where a chemical within the cork reacts with the wine to produce a musty smell.

"The news pages of wine trade journals are reporting the conversion of product ranges or entire brands to alternative closures with increasing frequency," the report says. "Reasons cited by brand owners include cost savings, the potential for spoilage of wine under natural cork, and favourable consumer media coverage for alternative stoppers."

But even though some of the new types of closure, made of plastic, metal or even glass in some cases, have proved to be more effective, there remains a romantic attachment to cork. And it is not only conservatism and romanticism that stands in the way of the development of alternatives. The screw-cap in particular suffers from a certain stigma having been associated for many years with lower quality wine.

The research bears this out, with synthetic cork proving more acceptable to respondents than screw-cap. However, while the screw-cap remained less popular than the synthetic cork, it recorded a sharper rise in popularity than synthetic cork.

Click here for details of the full reportWhile the percentage or respondents saying they liked synthetic corks rose from 17% to 29%, the proportion saying they liked screw caps showed a stronger gain from 7% to 18%. Similarly, the percentage of consumers saying they did not like screw-caps dropped more sharply (59% down to 36%) than that observed for synthetic cork (12% to 10%), suggesting that the screw-cap could be finally losing its downmarket image.

The screw-cap has even gained popularity among red wine drinkers. Cork is still widely viewed by consumers as the best type of closure for red wine but the report reveals that people who drink only red wine have become more open to screw-caps during the past year. Interestingly, white wine drinkers have become marginally more critical of these types of closures during the same period, according to the report.

Sectors: Wine

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