Comment - Wine - Amorim, O-I and Helix: Turning the Screwcap?

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Chris Losh may not have been the biggest fan of Amorim, but the company's launch of the screwtop-style cork closure last month has Losh slightly more onside than before. Just.


It must be said that I have always been sceptical - borderline cynical - when it comes to Portuguese cork producer Amorim. As a company, it seems to me to have spent a good deal of time over the last 20 years attempting either to prove that claims of cork taint were exaggerated, or gently denigrating the alternatives to natural cork. 

In the process, it has expended a lot of energy that could - and should - have been put into actually sorting out the problem, into laying false trails or denying the warning signs. 

The firm has been very good at tapping into the zeitgeist, for sure: When the world was interested in all things green and ecological, stories would appear in the press about how the move away from natural cork threatened the livelihood of the Iberian lynx and the short-toed eagle.

In these times of economic hardship, concerned-looking journalists have been fed stories about how screwcaps et al will mean the destitution of an entire community.

Springtime trips to Portugal for sun-starved hacks have meant a procession of big-splash stories that always seem to make it into the national press on the opening day of a trade fair.

So, when I saw stories about the release of Helix flooding the press and social media on day one of Vinexpo, I have to confess my heart sank a little.

Helix represents Amorim’s latest move into the closure market. A cork stopper that requires no corkscrew, it has been developed in conjunction with glass manufacturer O-I. Both cork and bottle have threads on, allowing for the stopper to be twisted out manually.

It is, more or less, a screwcap made out of agglomerated cork. Agglomerated closures are made from real cork, that’s blown to bits, then steam cleaned to rid it of TCA, and glued back together. Since they look like cork and have very low levels of taint, these technical corks have been increasingly popular.

Amorim claims that it has the advantages of cork without any of the disadvantages, citing four main benefits. Firstly, it’s re-sealable; secondly it’s eco-friendly; thirdly it’s good for the economic ecosystem of the cork forests; and finally it retains the ‘pop’ sound of a cork coming out of a bottle that consumers love so much.

To my mind, one of these statements is true, two are debatable and the fourth is plain wrong.

There’s no question that a cork-based product is going to help sustain the economy of the cork forests of the Alentejo, and this, surely, is a good thing. No-one likes to see communities dying slowly. Though whether the Helix will take off in sufficient numbers to make a difference is a moot point at the moment. 

Estimates from synthetic closure producer Nomacorc put screwcaps and synthetic closures at around a third of the market. The Helix will need to go a long way to reverse that trend on its own.

The environmental argument seems reasonable enough. Cork trees, after all, are self-renewing. But although the Helix is, I should imagine, more eco-friendly than a Stelvin closure, there are still question marks over how biodegradable agglomerate (as opposed to natural) corks are, since they are held together with glue.

This, though, is less contentious than the assertion that the bottle is ‘re-sealable’, or, as the press release, puts it: "A solution that enhances the wine drinking experience through opening and resealing convenience."

This, frankly, is nonsense. Given that once any closure - bar a Champagne cork - is taken out, it can be put back in (or ‘resealed’ as it’s technically known) it means that screwcaps, corks and even synthetics are all resealable as well. In this area, the Helix is hardly a game-changer.

However, there seems to be an implication that wines can be kept fresh by re-inserting the Helix into the neck of the bottle, which is clearly nonsense. 

"Bottles," we are told, "‘can be opened and closed several times, simply by holding the bottle and twisting the top." This is true, but unless you drink the contents quickly it’s not going to do you much good. Unless, of course, you just like opening and closing bottles…

Which brings me to the ‘pop’ question. While the noise wasn’t quite as explosive as you’d get from a ‘proper’ cork – more of a dull ‘pung’ than a ‘pop’ – it’s still an improvement on the lack of theatre surrounding a screwcap.

There will be many people around the world who couldn’t care less about this. But, there are also many who do; who, for whatever reason, like their wine’s arrival to be announced. And, if that comes without having to mess around with a corkscrew, then so much the better.

It’s here, where ‘traditional in outlook’ meets ‘non-traditional wine drinker’ that I think the Helix could score. 

One UK supermarket buyer wearily described it to me as "the worst of both worlds: more expensive and no better than a screwcap, [with] none of the romance of a corkscrew".

For markets such as the UK, which increasingly have no problem with the screwcap, this may be true. But, for emerging markets like China, or the more change-resistant parts of the US, I’d say Helix can probably go where the likes of Stelvin fears to tread.

Producers, I’m sure, won’t like it, since its implementation will involve a fair bit of bottling-line expense. But, if it’s the difference between a big Chinese order and nothing, they’ll suck it up.

In short, while I’m not sure about the fuzzy green angle, and plain disagree with the ‘resealing’ claims, I do think Helix is a good idea and an interesting innovation, in an industry that is chronically short of them. 

I just can’t help feeling that it’s the kind of thing Amorim ought to have been working on 20 years ago, rather than putting their fingers in their ears and pretending that cork taint wasn’t a big issue.

Sectors: Wine

Companies: Vinexpo

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