It may come as some surprise but few factions in the wine world fight such fierce battles as those fought between the companies that supply corks, screwcaps and synthetic stoppers. The main competitor of traditional cork stoppers is the screwtop. In fact, between 2004 and 2009, natural cork stoppers lost a significant market share to the competition of newer synthetic alternatives.

However, in recent years, the competition has begun to tilt decisively back in favour of traditional cork stoppers, thanks to the consumer preference of a nation that barely touched the grape vintages a generation ago. In fact, Amorim, Portugal’s largest cork company, has noted that cork was used in the production of at least 70% of the 19 billion bottles of wine produced in 2017.

China driving wine back to tradition

This soaring demand for traditional cork stoppers is being driven by China, which will likely overtake the U.K. as the second-largest wine market in the world by 2020. Domestic brands currently account for 80% of the market in China, however, China is becoming increasingly interested in imported old world wines.

Old world and premium wines are far more likely to be sealed by a natural cork stopper compared to a screwcap. Even countries that spearheaded the use of screwcaps, such as Australia and New Zealand, tend to change their closure method according to the preference of the Chinese market. In fact, cork is used in 8 out of 10 bottles of wine that Australia exports to China.

Recent surveys by China’s CTR Market Research group has discovered overwhelming support for traditional natural stoppers in China. 98% of urban wine drinkers see cork as beneficial, with 85% agreeing that a cork stopper has influenced their wine selection.

A cultural habit

Unlike countries such as France, Italy or the UK, much of the wine consumed in China is purchased for celebrations, rather than consumption at home. Many in China see cork stoppers as part of a more high-end lifestyle and as an integral part of the ceremony of opening a wine bottle that makes it more cultured and elegant.

In China, presenting a bottle of wine with a cork at a formal dinner or business meeting demonstrates your knowledge of wine etiquette and gives face to the host. China’s preference for cork stoppers is strongly linked to its honouring of tradition. Similar to this is the great respect for a solution that has worked well over the centuries and will continue to do so.

Tackling fakes

Aside from contributing to a higher social status and the ceremony of opening a bottle of wine with a cork stopper, there is a more practical motive for choosing wines with a cork, fear of fakes. It is an unfortunate reality that in a secondary wine market such as China where palates are less sophisticated that there will be a rise in expensive fakes. Some estimates have stated that as much as 60% of wine sold in China could be rebottled, relabeled or worse. Thankfully, cork is invaluable in identifying the age of the wine, from the rarest and oldest to the most common bottles of red wine.

It is incredibly difficult to fake a cork, which is able to prove how well a wine has aged or been stored. Whilst it might be possible to refresh wine with a syringe through the cork, it isn't possible to fake the staining on the underside of the cork or the difference between the bottom and top of the cork. It is also possible to look at the amount of fungus along the sides of the cork to detect the age of the wine as the fungus can only expand over time in those conditions. The origins of the majority of cork stoppers can also be traced, helping to prevent the sale of fakes.

Trade disputes and imports

China’s sales of Western, grape-based wines has increased significantly in recent years as consumers are forsaking traditional, local rice wines. Reductions in tax barriers have helped create this craze. However, there is one country which isn’t enjoying the same beneficial relation.

The ongoing US-China trade war has created an uncertain future for US winemakers that export to China. China has implemented retaliatory taxes on US imports which have amounted to a 93% surcharge on every bottle of American wine that arrives in China. In comparison, this is double that of French wine and more than triple what Chilean or Australian wine is taxed.

It is expected that as this trade dispute continues Chinese importers will move on to other countries wine. It is logical to assume that as more Old World wines are imported with natural cork stoppers, China’s preference will only be strengthened.

The connection between Portugal and China

China’s preference for cork not only applies to imported wine, but also to wine that is produced locally. In fact, Chinese customs announced at the beginning of 2017 that import taxes on natural cork being imported into China were going to be reduced from 8% to 4%. This change was spearheaded by the customs authority of Shandong province, which is also one of the biggest wine-producing regions in China.

Portugal, as the worlds biggest supplier of cork, will continue to be affected by the consumer choices of a country nearly 10,000km away. The cultural and historical bonds between the two countries extend more than just cork, but the Chinese preference for cork stoppers will only continue to strengthen those bonds.

In addition, the preferences of Chinese wine consumers will have an impact on the global wine trade and will affect countries all over the world and could mark a strong return to traditional cork stoppers over metal screwcaps.