British supermarket and off-licence chains are putting cork under threat with their demands for a synthetic substitute. They say it cuts down the chances of the wine being "corked" - acquiring the distinctive musty odour and sour taste which makes a wine undrinkable.
Should the synthetic substitutes catch on, not only will the economies of countries like Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia be affected but their ecology will be damaged too. Cork oaks in the western Mediterranean region will be grubbed up. It takes 40 years for a newly-planted tree to produce its first commercial harvest, so they may never be replaced and the industry will die.
Plastic corks make commercial sense: up to one in eight bottles is corked. Because 70 per cent of such bottles are never taken back, retailers fear they are losing trade.
Many high street retailers in Britain, including Thresher, Oddbins, Marks and Spencer and Tesco, now supply wine corked with plastic tops. Wine producers in California, Australia, Chile and Argentina are increasingly sealing their wine with plastic rather than cork.
"We're changing them as fast as we can," said Thresher's communication manager David Howse. "The role of the cork is overestimated. It's really only there to stop the wine falling out if you turn the bottle upside down."
The cork producers are not giving up without a fight. They say makers of the plastic version will find it tough going to match the impermeability, flexibility and resilience of natural cork stoppers. Nor will they be able to ensure the plastic seal will help enhance the wine it stops, they claim.
Sergio Moutinho of the Cork Technology Centre near Oporto, Portugal, where some 90 per cent of the corks for Europe's wine bottles are made, said: "Chemicals migrate from plastics that can affect the taste and aroma of wine, and the synthetic simulation of cork's natural properties is at a very early stage. A good cork can contribute to the flavour of wine, and plastic substitutes cannot."
The cork producers' chief allies are traditional wine makers, especially in France, a fact which Mr Howse believes will probably save cork production in the Iberian peninsula. "The French wine industry is so huge and its domestic market so strong that it doesn't need to have a world perspective," he said.
Some British wine producers also remain unconvinced about the charms of plastic. "If you make sure your corks come from a quality source there's a only a very small chance of the wine being affected," said Charles Cunningham, who produces 30,000 bottles a year at Wooldings Vineyard in Whitchurch, Hampshire.
Britain is the world's third biggest market for wine. We buy 980m bottles of wine a year, 9.5 per cent of the wines sold annually across the world.
The biggest market is France, with 18 per cent. Nearly 10bn bottles are sold worldwide every year.
White wine remains the Briton's favourite - just. Today 52 per cent of bottles sold in the UK are white and 48 per cent are red. As recently as 10 years ago the ratio was 60-40 in favour of white.
Until the mid-1600s, bottling was achieved by carving lumps of oak covered in muslin. The modern cork was developed by Dom Perignon, the champagne magnate, in the late 17th century.
Most cork is produced in the Duoro region of Portugal and in northern Spain.
A cork tree takes 40 years to grow its first hide and can only be stripped of its cork once every seven to 11 years.Reuse content