A Nice Tipple

Feb. 19, 2019

Portugal has made a comeback not only as the world's leading manufacturer of cork stoppers, but also as a legitimate winemaker in the global market.

Uncorking a proper bottle of wine is always accompanied by what many people feel is one of the most satisfying sounds on earth. That specific satisfaction, however, was in recent years threatened by the arrival of alternative stoppers made out of plastic and aluminum. In the name of good taste and style, the cork industry, largely based in Portugal, is standing its ground. The industry argues that nothing except a piece of cork can do the trick. When it comes to wine, so the sentiment goes, one is not merely after practicality, but tradition and style. After some ups and downs over the years, corks have made a comeback and are now reclaiming their status as the ultimate guardians of wine bottles.

Regardless of cork stoppers' aesthetic merits over plastic and aluminum, the production of cork is a billion-dollar industry in its own right. Portugal, the world's leading producer, earns approximately USD1 billion per year from the export of cork, and the industry is responsible for 15,000-20,000 direct and indirect jobs in the country. Portugal owes its status as the world's biggest producer of cork stoppers to over 1.8 million acres of cork oak forests stretched along its western and southern coasts.
Founded in 1870, Corticeira Amorim is thought to be the world's largest producer. The company played a crucial role in the re-popularization of cork in recent years by minimizing the undermining effects that, according to some winemakers, cork has on the taste and smell of bottled wine. The industry is now employing advanced screening and processing methods to make cork stoppers as neutral as possible. The company believes that cork manufacturing is one of the eco-friendliest industries in the world, because cork oak forests, which are kept healthy and thriving with the help of the industry, are effective absorbers of greenhouse gases.

Although Portuguese cork is for the most part exported, particularly to the US, it is also used by local winemakers. Portugal is hardly a new member of the winemaker's club; it has been exporting wine since Roman times. In the early 18th century, Portuguese wine was appreciated in England, among other places. Indeed, the winemaking tradition of Portugal is as sophisticated as those of France and Italy, and some regions of Portugal have had appellation systems in place for centuries.
In addition to the UNESCO-protected Douro Valley, Minho, Dão, and Bairrada are regarded as wine-producing regions of Portugal. Thanks to grape varieties such as Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Alvarinho, and Tinta Roriz and a general dislike for using non-Iberian grapes, Portugal has established itself as a reputable winemaker around the world. Port wine and vinho verde are in high demand in global markets, with port accounting for over 40% of Portugal's wine exports.

According to Portugal's Institute of Vine and Wine (IVV), the country exported over USD885 million worth of wine in 2017, a 7.5% growth. And the largest increase came from emerging markets; Brazil and Angola each spent over USD50 million in 2017 on Portuguese wine. However, France continues to be the biggest customer of Portugal's wine—importing approximately USD125 million worth per year—followed by the UK and the US. Although Portugal is already among the top 20 producers in the world, if the country wants to make a name for itself as a major player in the sector, marketing should be taken more seriously. Many winemakers across the country are small family businesses that cannot possibly launch marketing campaigns in the target countries. As such, having an exporters' association of some sort could be a very effective measure. Since 1997, this role has been fulfilled by ViniPortugal, whose aim is to promote the image of Portugal as a wine producing country par excellence by advancing its unique selection of vineyards and varieties.