Real corker - Issue 57 - Magazine | Monocle

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When Antonio Amorim took over his family’s 142-year-old business he knew that many challenges lay ahead. Not only did he have to win the trust of the stakeholders (he was named president at 32) but he also had to deal with the fight against TCA or “corked wine”. TCA is a wine fault that affects around 1 per cent of global production. It’s caused by environmental pollution that slips through tiny holes in the cork.

TCA became a true headache for Amorim in the late 1990s with the rise of synthetic closures and cheaper seals that promised to prevent the invisible compound from harming the wine.

The plastic corks and aluminium screw caps hit Amorim’s business hard, taking over 20 per cent of the global wine market. But this didn’t put Antonio off; instead he decided to work on the problem.

“We asked ourselves what had to be done in order to have a future even brighter than our past,” says Antonio. “We knew that our glory days were yet to come.” For the past 12 years Antonio has put all his effort (and money – €53m) into research and development to improve Amorim’s staple product, the legendary Portuguese wine cork. Since then the company has increased the number of industrial units to 27, upgraded its labs with state-of-the-art equipment and worked with the staff – from machine operators to accountants – to make sure earlier mistakes aren’t repeated.

Coruche, a 50-minute drive from Lisbon, is a parish with a population of 8,000 that has harvested cork for centuries, a skill passed on through generations. Every year from May to July entire families flock to the arid forests to strip the trees of their bark, the same way Romans and Egyptians did centuries ago. In groups of two (usually a young cutter learning from an older one) locals climb and carefully peel the trees, which have been growing for at least 25 years.

“It’s a process that takes a lifetime,” explains Carlos de Jesus, who guides monocle through the cork farm, one of the many that make a total of 2.2 million hectares in the Mediterranean from where Amorim sources its prime material.

By law, cork trees must remain untouched for at least nine years (time in which they grow new bark) until they can be hacked again and it’s only after the third yield that the tree starts to produce top-quality cork. “Here we have a saying: ‘If you want to make money for yourself, plant eucalyptus. If you want to make money for your sons, plant pine. But if you want to make money for your grandsons, plant cork,” says Carlos. “Buying stock and bonds is more profitable than planting trees but when I ask the land owners why they are doing it I always get the same answer – because someone did it for them,” he adds.

Tradition is very important to Amorim. It’s a key aspect of a company that’s reaching €495m in annual sales, an income that has boosted the opening of subsidiaries in wine-producing countries such as Chile and South Africa. This expansion has taken the company to the top of its league by producing 3.5 billion corks a year, making Amorim 11 times bigger than its closest competitor. But this growth wouldn’t have been possible without equipment such as the gas chromatographer, a machine that controls the cork’s quality at a molecular level. “To guarantee excellence in our products we’re applying the same sampling protocols the US Army uses,” says Carlos. “We test every step of the process – from tree to bottle – to ensure the cork is perfect.”

Cork has come a long way; today Amorim works closely with an array of engineers and designers that are giving it different uses. Yves Saint Laurent and Prada made the soles of their latest shoe collections with cork and Nasa has used it in their spaceships’ hulls (cork composites withstand up to 2,000c and make the rocket lighter). Baseballs, shuttlecocks and surfboards are full of it. The 2012 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London – designed by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei – is made from Amorim’s cork. “We are virtually in every industry,” says Antonio.

“Currently we’re working with Mercedes-Benz to create an interior with cork so thin that it resembles leather,” he adds. And it doesn’t stop there. Cork is being tested for its bulletproof faculties and will soon be used – in powder form – by the cosmetics industry to make hypoallergenic foundation.

Amorim has clearly reached far places from Santa María de Lamas, 15 minutes from Porto, where it all started in 1870. Besides being the headquarters it’s also where the thickest bark arrives, ready to be guided by German robots and manually drilled out by master artisans. Here, the best cork stoppers – destined to seal bottles of Château Margaux, Latour, Lafite and Krug – are produced. “We are constantly growing and technology is a vital part of our business,” says Carlos, “but it’s the workers who have been with us for decades that are essential. At the end of the day they control the machines, not the other way around.”

The process

  1. Harvest
    Cutters use axes to remove the bark, leaving the treetops untouched. Cork can be harvested once every nine years.
  2. Soaking
    The cork is transported to factories where it is left to dry then soaked in boiling water at 98C to flatten the slabs.

  3. Cutting
    Roundels are cut from bark strips; leftovers are then shredded and used to make less expensive corks.

  4. Best of the best
    Premium cork is taken to facilities where robots guide the bark and master craftsmen punch out one-piece stoppers. They are then branded.

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