Products - Quality and R&D

Science and technology at nature's service

Laboratories equipped with state-of-the-art technology, sampling that follows the protocol used by the U.S. Armed Forces, over twelve thousand samples tested every month and a golden rule:  to analyse the cork stoppers at each stage of production. These are just a few of the quality assurances of Amorim cork stoppers. The company is completely focused on improving quality and creating new products which meet the needs of oenologists and wineries. The investment in this goal is unparalleled in the sector.

For Amorim, market leadership means greater responsibility: the quality of the cork stoppers produced is of the utmost importance. In the 1990s, Amorim rose up to the challenge and transformed threats into opportunities.  It invested millions of Euros into the installation of processing units equipped with the latest technology and adopted a strategy of ongoing investment in Quality and Research & Development, which involves an annual financial investment of six million Euros in R&D and a lot more in equipment and processes.

Due to unprecedented scientific and technological advances in the sector and a strict approach in the ongoing improvement of the range and quality of cork stoppers, wine producers today have every guarantee of performance, image and quality associated with Amorim cork stoppers.

The R&D Department is part of the company's global strategy.  Its goal is the scientific validation of the production processes, the increase in knowledge in regard to the interaction of cork stoppers with wine and the improvement of the quality of the cork stoppers produced.  The greatest challenge is to defeat 2,4,6 Trichloroanisole (TCA), the main cause of the so-called «cork taint» in the wine.

Integrated quality management

Amorim is as dedicated to the quality of the production of cork stoppers as winemakers are to producing wines.  And with good reason – both are products from nature and thus living matter, and any failure in one of the processes may undo the tremendous efforts made.

Therefore, the quality of Amorim involves the coordination of an Integrated Management System in the different strands and units.  A specific team coordinates all the monitoring and assessment activities of the product, ensuring the client's requirements are met and the improvement of processes.

The strong commitment to Quality and R&D involves extremely important technical innovations in the safety plan, which begins back in the cork oak forest.  Although Amorim is not a forest owner, it has a very close relationship with cork producers, only purchases raw material which complies with CE Liège's International Code of Cork Stopper Manufacturing Practice and has records which date back five decades to help identify and select the best quality cork.   An integrated management of the chain of value, from the purchase of the raw material, its storage, manufacturing and optimisation of all the by-products, allied with the fact that it has a direct presence in all the cork-producing countries, allows sources to be diversified and the control of the flow of raw material.

Amorim is a forerunner in strict quality control in each stage of production, which starts with prevention by the better selection and storage of the planks.  Under the International Code of Cork Stopper Manufacturing Practice, the planks are stacked in concrete yards, to avoid the cork being in contact with the ground.  The stacks are placed in such a way that they maximise water drainage and air circulation, to reduce the danger of microbial contamination.  It is also with this goal in mind that all cork intended for the manufacture of stoppers is moved around the factory in stainless steel pallets.

Stringent measures also involve cleaning processes which include modern and highly efficient technology (CONVEX®, INOS® and ROSA®), improved industrial hygiene (HACCP) and the use of a detailed analysis system by GC-MS – Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry). As a result of its speed and degree of reliability, the GC-MS system is extensively used in medicine, pharmacology, the environment and even by the world's best police forces.  Amorim has eleven of these high precision machines which carry out the quality control of the cork stoppers on a molecular level, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  In addition to informing whether the batches analysed are problematic or not, this highly efficient equipment gauges the quantity of TCA present, when this is the case. This means that it is a tool which enables not just the TCA to be gauged, but also how to manage it.

«My winemaking philosophy extends to my choice of closure. I want a quality natural product and Amorim has been supplying me with that for 25 years.»

Ron Laughton
Jasper Hill, Australia

Better than the human nose

GC analysis is more objective, precise and reliable than the human nose. It is able to detect releasable TCA levels below 0.5 parts per trillion (0.5 ng/L), which are much lower than sensory detection levels. Therefore, it is carried out in every batch and in every essential stage of production.  It is used to examine purchases, test the cork planks after boiling and the granulate, disks and cork stoppers after production, until the finishing stage.  Thanks to its precision, quantitative analysis is replacing sensory analysis in quality control.  The results are excellent in minimising the compounds which cause the wine to have strange aromas and in terms of client satisfaction.

In order to guarantee the quality of the products, Amorim uses the methodology developed by the ETS Laboratory in California and the Cork Quality Council of the USA. The system combines statistical sampling techniques with standardised chemical analysis to gauge the levels of releasable TCA in the cork stoppers and indicates whether the batches should be accepted or rejected.

Amorim has a central laboratory for research and testing, while each factory has its own laboratory associated with process control.  Distribution companies around the world also rely on laboratories that perform tests on the cork stoppers before final delivery to clients.  Over twelve thousand samples with a high degree of accuracy pass through the Amorim laboratories every month - a number which is higher than any other company in the sector, in any part of the world.  Notwithstanding, Amorim still participates in inter-laboratory comparison tests to gauge its own results, in relation to those from other laboratories.

The cork stopper is a barrier against TCA

In terms of research, Amorim promotes a large number of tests in partnership with clients and develops cooperation projects with other research institutes all over the world.  The priorities continue to be the fight against TCA by constantly improving processes and products, developing new products and new knowledge about cork, research on the transfer of oxygen and the role of the stopper in the development of the wine, in addition to other possible interactions between the cork stopper and the wine.  The results have often been surprising.

In 2011, a team of professionals from the Amorim R&D Department and the Faculty of Oenology of the Vine and Wine Institute of the University of Bordeaux conducted detailed research work in an area of research that until then was relatively untapped:  the permeation of volatile compounds through the closures.  The study compared the behaviour of natural cork and agglomerate stoppers and artificial closures when exposed to an environment contaminated with TCA and over a storage period of 36 months.  The conclusions indicate that cork stoppers are an effective barrier against the transmission of TCA, contrary to what happens with artificial closures.

These results reinforce the unique characteristics of the cork stopper in terms of its sealing capacity and preservation of the wine - although it allows sufficient air to enter for maturation to occur, the cork stopper is impermeable to volatile compounds which in some storage conditions could negatively affect the sensory properties of the bottled wine, contrary to what happens with artificial closures.  This recent knowledge is crucial if we take into account that the main function of the cork stopper or any other closure is to ensure the full protection of the bottled wine.

The TCA enemy

TCA is a compound present in nature and can be found everywhere.  It does not pose any risk to health, but may influence the taste of the wine from minute concentrations. However, it is not exclusive to the wine industry - it has been detected in non-alcoholic beverages, bottled water, beer and spirits. It has also been identified in processed foods, such as cocoa, flour and raisins and is responsible for the «Rio flavour» in coffee beans. In the brewing industry, TCA has long been recognised as an enemy. For the Dutch beer, Heineken, it has proven to be a real headache.  The company spent millions in eliminating the problem related to TCA in the caps.  The outcome was a beer with a cork stopper.

The formation of TCA occurs when micro-organisms, such as fungi, come into contact with chlorine-based compounds, usually chlorophenols.  There are various causes for the formation of TCA and not all of them involve cork.  The TCA in wine may be due to the contamination of oak barrels or cork stoppers, or may be due to the winemaking machinery and bottling equipment.  It may also arise in fungi floating in the air or chlorine-based compounds in wineries and cellars, in transport equipment or delivery pallets.

«Amorim has tried very hard to find a solution for natural cork’s main issues. And those efforts have been successful.»

Luís Duarte
Winemaker of the Year - 2006, Portugal

CONVEX®, INOS® e ROSA®, unprecedented efficiency

Along with preventive measures, Amorim applies its own patented innovative curative measures, which are unparalleled in the market.  The innovation is seen as soon as the cork arrives at the factory.  All the planks indicated for the manufacture of cork stoppers are processed in the dynamic CONVEX® boiling system, which prevents cross-contamination and produces a drier, cleaner cork for processing, which is thus less vulnerable to the formation of TCA.  This system is an unprecedented innovation against traditional boiling methods, which instead of decreasing the risk of contamination of the planks, increased it.

Extra care is taken in the case of disks for technical stoppers, which are treated with the INOS® exclusive hydrodynamic cleaning process. This method uses the unique honeycomb structure of the cork to deep clean the lenticels, which are in contact with the wine.

In regard to innovation and exclusive treatment, the ROSA® (Rate of Optimal Steam Application) system is top-of-the-range, which uses controlled steam to eliminate any trace of TCA.  The success of this method has been proven, not only in industrial scale tests, but in independent research published by renowned laboratories in three continents.
The result of proven efficiency, Amorim installed several ROSA® units, to treat all cork granulate (to be used to manufacture agglomerates and Twin Top® technical stoppers), and batches of natural cork stoppers, which by indication of the GC-MS machines, require additional treatment.

«Amorim has been able to provide us with traditional closure solutions while meeting our demand for quality and progress in our continuous search for excellence.»

Philippe Guigal
General Manager & Winemaker, Guigal, France

After processing, the cork stoppers continue to be subjected to a series of tests and procedures, in order to ensure that they meet the exact specifications of the wine producers and comply with the increasingly stringent requirements in regard to materials in contact with food.  Tests are performed to measure the physical properties, size, humidity, presence of strange aromas, residual oxidants, surface treatments, sealing capacity, extraction, insertion and long-term storage capacity.  The packaging materials are also subjected to tests, in order to ensure maximum protection of the cork stoppers during transport.

Cases of producers who have faced grave difficulties in fighting TCA in their facilities are not uncommon.  For example, in Bordeaux, problems were seen with the formation of TCA caused by chlorine-based wood preservatives used in wineries.  A leading wine producer in the Napa Valley also found that wine preservatives used in the winery, in conjunction with the use of a humidifier in one of the cellars, were the cause of an abnormal incidence of contaminated wines.  Another known case was in California, where two drainage pipes were identified as the cause of TCA in their wines. Employees used chlorine to remove concrete stains from the cellar floor and then drained the rinsing water into the drainage pipes.  The chlorine suffered a chemical reaction when it came into contact with the phenols which by nature occur in wine residue, creating the TCA which later contaminated the wine.  The problem was only resolved with the construction of a new wine cellar and the implementation of new hygiene procedures. 

A Culture of Innovation

The strong commitment to R&D, allied with major investment in innovation, has contributed to broaden the knowledge about cork and open new horizons.  With the aim of creating new applications for cork, new products and new markets, Amorim created Market Oriented Research for Cork, or in abbreviated form MOR FOR CORK, a transversal department to the whole company and all products.  Recently it has devoted particular attention to the cosmetic and food sectors.  In the case of the innovation of cork products, some of the most recent projects include, for example, the study on the contribution of the cork stopper to the counterfeiting of premium wines, the study of new quality criteria in natural cork stoppers, which aims to find, through the internal imaging of cork stoppers, a clear understanding of their performance in the bottle; the optimisation of new types of stoppers and the development of a new washing system for natural cork stoppers with significant improvements in terms of visual quality.The organisational culture geared towards Innovation and the creation of value is undertaken by all the company's employees, as proven by the success of an internal innovation programme, CORK IN. This initiative was launched in 2012 with the aim of sharing ideas on production processes, methods and the creation of new products and processes. The initiative was such a success that just in the first six months over 110 ideas were registered, 35 of which have already been implemented or are currently in the process of being implemented.

Thanks to investment in Quality, Research & Development and Innovation, the progress seen over the last few years has resulted in the particularly significant improvement of cork stoppers.  Amorim products bear the international Cork Mark symbol, developed by the European Cork Federation (C.E.  Liège), the European Forest Institute and the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO)  This symbol is used to identify quality cork products, manufactured in accordance with the international code of cork stopper manufacturing practices. It is a symbol of quality and sustainability.

A proactive team

Amorim created a communication platform with clients that allows it to respond quickly and efficiently and offer each client proactive professional advice.  An extensive team of consultants, whose members understand the characteristics of each country and its culture, helps winemakers to select the cork stopper which is most suited to their particular needs, monitors storage conditions and the type of cellar, analyses the system, the bottling method and bottle used and provides advice in order to guarantee optimum performance of the stoppers in the bottle.

«Amorim is serious about collaboration with us in order to protect the treasure that we put into the bottle.»

Alessandra Zorzi
Carpenè Malvolti Spa, Italy