Alternative Wine Closure - Nomacorc Oxygen Management System

"How can we expect outsiders to understand that we have the best barbecue in the country when we can't even agree among ourselves what good barbecue is?" 
Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue - page 44.

They take barbecue seriously in North Carolina, east vs. west, vinegar or ketchup, tradition vs. innovation. I see some parallel divisions in the wine industry. Have wine closures come to symbolize another split in winemaking tradition vs. innovation? That of natural cork vs. synthetic cork?


photo: Nomacorc facility in Zebulon, North Carolina.



Last week I visited Raleigh, North Carolina for the first time. Raleigh is home to some amazing barbecue as I learned. By the time I returned to Washington state, my waistline was obvious proof of the good eating in Raleigh. The delicious cue and fried chicken were not my chief reasons for visiting North Carolina. I was invited to Raleigh to attend the Spring Media Day at the Nomacorc production facility in nearby Zebulon, North Carolina. We were a group of 12, mostly wine writers, hailing from the U.S., Canada and Portugal. Nomacorc invited us to learn more about the merits of their internal closure system for wine. Nomacorc is the name of the company and of their flagship synthetic cork, "Nomacorc."

photo: Introduction by Lars von Kantzow President and CEO Nomacorc.

Let me be direct with you – when I arrived in North Carolina I had my doubts about Nomacorc convincing me that they had a good alternative to natural cork (I have mentioned in previous posts that I am a cork snob). Speaking with my fellow wine writers on the morning of day one, they shared similar beliefs. I last visited the topic of wine closure technology in my post “Seeking Closure", 20 September 2007.


photo: Bottles of wine that use Nomacorc.

What is Nomacorc?

Nomacorc is one of the leading producers of synthetic cork. The company name and their product are both referred to as Nomacorc.

I was surprised to learn that they produce over 7 million corks a day (2.4 billion a year)! Nomacorc is a co-extruded cork composed of 60% air. The core of a Nomacorc closure is breathable foam, which allows for the optimum control of oxygen transfer. While the outer flexible layer provides a consistent seal, protecting the wine while providing the traditional appearance and ease of opening associated with natural cork.

The winemaker can choose from several models of Nomacorc to select the closure appropriate to their wine and style of making wine. As we learned during our visit, the diversity of product allows for optimum oxygen control performance. But, the proof is in the seeing and tasting.

Nomacorc Product Line
  • Nomacorc Select 700
  • Nomacorc Select 500
  • Nomacorc Select 300
  • Nomacorc Select 100
  • Nomacorc Classic +
  • Nomacorc Smart +
  • Nomacorc Light

*Note 1: In the past I have generically placed Nomacorc in the category of “synthetic cork” - I have since learned that that was a mistake. Nomacorc is much more than a “synthetic cork” it also part of a system used to manage the Oxygen Transfer Rate (OTR) in a bottle of wine. Because of the material properties of Nomacorc, a winemaker does not have to worry about closure induced faults of TCA, Oxidation and Reduction. The target market for Nomacorc is the $4 - $15 bottle of wine.

Do consumers care what kind of closure is used on the wine they purchase?

At this point I ask, “Do you care?”

If you are reading this and don't care about OTR and closure systems, then I must lump you into the category of “most consumers” which I mention next.

Most consumers don't care. The consensus of our group and the data from a research report conducted by Merrill Research, supports this assumption:
  • Consumers care about the quality of the wine they drink. It must taste good.
  • Most consumers do not care what kind of closure is on the wine they purchase.
  • Consumers cannot define wine faults like: TCA, Oxidation and Reduction.
  • If a consumer does not like a wine, for any reason, they are unlikely to purchase that wine again.

“There is a problem with traditional wine cork...
“I have an idea.”
- Gert Noel, founder Nomacorc
Who cares?

Have I mentioned that I'm a cork snob? Industry professionals and collectors of fine wine care about OTR, wine faults and hence, closure systems. That is who this conversation is directed towards. As I learned last week, many winemakers have learned about the merits of the Nomacorc system. Let's look at some examples.

graph: Oxygen management by closure type, after 2 years.

Nomacorc Select Series

Nomacorc Select Series is designed to provide measurable oxygen management. An illustration of this is the graph above "Oxygen management by closure type, after 2 years." The Select 700 allows for the most oxygen ingress over time, the Select 100 allows for the least amount. Oxygen management will affect aroma, flavor and longevity in the bottle. But the proof is in the tasting. 

photo: Side by side comparison.
Our first tastings compared two bottles of Sauvignon Blanc and two bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon. Each bottle was closed with a different Nomacorc Select Series. These corks allowed for different amounts of OTR. The aroma and flavor of the same wine, bottled on the same day using different Nomacorc Select Series, was noticeably different. Side by side, one Sauvignon Blanc was more flavorful than the other. Also, side by side, one Cabernet Sauvignon was more flavorful than the other. All because of the model of Select Series used to close the wine.

photo: 2003 Eberle Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Cellar Wine with Nomacorc?

Not everyone in our group was open minded. I must admit that I too had reservations about long-term wine storage using Nomacorc. Would the wine be protected and still taste good after several years?

* Note 2: Since Nomacorc is a synthetic cork, it does not absorb moisture like natural cork. The OTR property of Nomacorc is not affected by physical contact with the wine in the bottle. Therefore, you do not have to store your wine bottles on their side...you could cellar your wine bottles with Nomacorc in an upright position if you desire.

Our second wine tasting was of a 2003 Eberle Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2003 Eberle was sealed with an orignal Nomacorc closure. Eberle winemaker Ben Mayo video conferenced with us as we opened and tasted his 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon. It was delicious. There was plenty of life left in the bottle for years to come. As they say, the proof is in the tasting. Okay, so maybe I was beginning to change my mind about Nomacorc at this point. At dinner I had ample opportunities to enjoy bottles of wine that used Nomacorc closures.

Closures Can Introduce Wine Faults

What's the big issue regarding cork; natural, synthetic, or screw cap? Is Nomacorc a better option?

There are many different potential wine faults which can be introduced to wine during and after the bottling process. The wine closure will not improve a bad bottle of wine, but it can ruin a good bottle of wine. This is the key role wine closures play in preserving good wine in the bottle.

photo: Sensory overview of wine faults.

Once again it was the consensus of our group, that the majority of consumers do not know the difference between oxidized and reduced wine and TCA. These three faults can be directly tied to the type of closure used on a bottle of wine.

  • Natural cork: TCA can be introduced via natural cork. I detest TCA. I see fewer incidents of TCA in newer vintages. But even one bottle ruined by TCA is upsetting.
  • Screw cap: For screw caps there can be issues of oxidation and reduction.
  • Injection molded cork: Hard plastic corks, almost impossible to remove, with issues of reduction.
My Bias

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I have been a self-proclaimed cork snob for years. I enjoy the ritual of opening a bottle of wine with a corkscrew. It can be very sexy too if done properly. I was admittedly aghast when screw caps first emerged, and appalled as they became more common. In the last couple of years, I have accepted screw caps and now I even smile at how easy they are to remove. They do a good job at preserving wine in the bottle and eliminate the cork induced TCA I detest in natural cork. Honestly, I've only experienced a wine fault once with a screw cap, the bottle of wine was heavily oxidized.

Photo: Antoinette Morano, Principal Sensory Technologist.

Nomacorc understands that customer satisfaction is essential to growth. They take the sensory experience their product delivers seriously. They even have a sensory lab where their product performance is repeatedly evaluated. We were led through a sensory overview of wine faults by Antoinette Morano, Nomacorc Principle Sensory Technologist. This is a serious, comprehensive company as I learned.

My bias was shifting, it shifted more as I was then introduced to a product unknown to me. Another key Nomacorc product is the Nomasense Oxygen Analyzer.

photo: Nomasense Oxygen Analyzer.

Oxygen Management and the Nomasense Hardware

Part of the Nomacorc Oxygen Management System is their Nomasense Oxygen Analyzer. Nomasense is hardware. Using modern luminescence technology, Nomasense allows for the precise quantification of the oxygen value in wine. You don't have to use Nomacorc closures to glean benefits from Nomasense. Anyone making wine can benefit from Nomasense technology. The hardware is small and portable too.

Oxygen management is a critical component to the making of wine. Throughout the winemaking process oxygen is of utmost concern; both too much exposure and too little exposure. That cork in a bottle of wine is there to protect the wine from oxygen, while allowing a minute amount of OTR. Too little oxygen and the wine can suffer from reduction, too much oxygen and the wine can suffer from oxidation. These factors can affect the shelf-life of wine and how well the wine is received by the consumer. 


Measure the oxygen during the winemaking process:
  • Measure the consumption of the must.
  • Monitor consumption in the press.
  • Provide validation of the technical process.
  • Measure in the vat, at the beginning.
  • Measure throughout the winemaking process.
  • Testing bottling line for oxygen leaks.
  • Reduce amount of oxygen added to wine during the bottling process.
Measuring the suspended oxygen:
  • Measure the total amount of oxygen in the bottle (dissolved and gaseous).
  • This value helps to show that the bottling conditions are under control. Can flag issues with hoses and pumps during the bottling process.
Measuring the oxygen in the headspace:
  • The total amount of oxygen is directly linked to the development of the wine and the storage time (color, aromas, sensation in the mouth).
photo: NomaSelector Software.

NomaSelector Software

Anyone in the computer business knows that you can't have hardware without software. So how do you select the perfect Nomacorc for your bottle of wine?

NomaSelector is the other piece of the Nomacorc Oxygen Management System. NomaSelector is the software used to guide winemakers through a structured questionnaire on the grape variety(ies) and the winemaking practices used; as well as the intended shelf life, storage and distribution for a wine. Using the data submitted by the winemaker, NomaSelector uses an algorithm to determine the best Nomacorc Select Series closure for a wine. That's pretty cool in my book.

photo: NomaSelector Software Nomacorc options.
photo: Various types of cork closures.

Did Nomacorc change my bias?

Nomacorc is a synthetic cork. Except, synthetic cork is actually a fairly broad descriptor for corks with synthetic ingredients. While Nomacorc is a synthetic cork, so too are the injection molded corks I still detest, and while agglomerate and 1+1 corks are composed of crushed and compressed natural cork (see photo above), the binder used is synthetic (laytex and other glues). Also, as cool and accessible as screw caps are, they can still introduce wine faults like oxidation and reduction.

But it's not natural cork

Absolutely, I appreciate the value natural cork provides to the environment and to the tradition of opening a bottle of wine. However, I inwardly cringe every time I open a bottle of wine with a natural cork closure. I dread having a bottle of wine tainted with TCA; it still happens too frequently.

The issues of sustainability, carbon footprint and recycling are far too broad to pin solely on the closure system used on a bottle of wine. If you accuse synthetic cork, then you accuse screw caps, and personal behavior; the weight of the glass bottle, transportation costs and the efficiency of the production process are likely more relevant topics.

The Production Facility

photo: Nomacorc facility, co-extruding cork below.

I did learn that Nomacorc has increased their production while reducing material and energy consumption over the last decade. That's a positive trend. And Nomacorc continues to innovate and improve their production by the implementation of LEAN Six Sigma best practices.

photo: Touring the Nomacorc production facility.

Their facility in Zebulon, North Carolina was very clean and appeared safety oriented and efficient. The employees I met and observed were positive and professional, there was constant monitoring and logging of equipment and processes throughout the production cycle of the Nomacorc closures. Nomacorc encourages and rewards their employees for self-improvement and for their suggestions to enhance plant operations. They are continually working to improve efficiency and their product. They are even experimenting with plant-based (organic) materials.

photo: Lab analysis at Nomacorc.
What did I learn? 

Nomacorc has a very technical product line, which when used with the NomaSense equipment, NomaSelector software and Nomacorc Select Series closures, can provide a real difference in the wine making process.

One of the reasons I don't score wine is because wine continues to evolve while it is in the bottle. What I taste in a bottle of wine opened today, will be different if that bottle were opened a year from today. Nomacorc understands this. Nomacorc closures and their management of OTR can play a significant role during bottle development. Nomacorc then becomes another important part of the wine making process. Still winning.

Nomacorc - Safekeeping the sexy of opening a bottle of wine

One of the members of our party was a Canadian Restauranteur. He sells thousands of bottles of wine at his restaurant. From his perspective, screw caps are utilitarian; screw caps are “...for opening a $2 or $3 bottle of soda pop, or water, I don't have an emotional connection to that, I'm just thirsty...there's an art, there's a passion to that dance of taking that cork out...Wine is a very different animal....I'm a romantic.”

photo: 2003 Eberle Cabernet Suavignon.

His description of the proper way of opening a bottle of wine. “...it can be very sexy romantic dance opening a bottle of wine... Taking a knife, cutting that foil and pealing it off, and getting it (corkscrew) right in the center of the cork, not on the side, right in the middle, (motion of twisting hand) and then pulling it out slowly, that gentle puff. And then pouring it in the glass. That's how it's done. I don't care about how much air, I don't care about the technical. I care about the girl I'm with and about that sexy dance we're about to enjoy. That's what I care about.”

From that perspective Nomacorc protects the wine in the bottle while safekeeping the sexy of opening a bottle of wine. That's win-win friends.

So yes, Nomacorc did change my biased view of their product. The next time I encounter a Nomacorc, I will look at it to figure out which model it is. I will also have the confidence that the wine was properly protected. For age-worthy wines, I will know that the wine is suitable for the cellar too.

 
  


I'd like to thank Nomacorc for bringing me to the lovely city of Raleigh, North Carolina and their Zebulon production facility. This was one of my favorite educational experiences. I have learned that they are delivering a significant product and OTR system to the wine industry. The barbecue,  fried chicken, okra, mac and cheese, and all the delicious southern foods were amazing too. Raleigh is a beautiful city.

My special thanks to:
  • Lars von Kantzow President and CEO Nomacorc
  • Wes Ward, Technical Sales Manager
  • Antoinette Morano, Principal Sensory Technologist
  • Katie Myers, Global Manager of Public Relations
  • Whitney Rigsbee, Media Relations Specialist
400 Vintage Park Dr.
Zebulon, NC 27597
Telephone: 919-460-2200
Facsimile: 919-269-7936

Thank you for an educational and inspirational visit.

Cheers!

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