When is a cork not just a cork?

In April 2013, I spent a week in Portugal as a guest of Amorim Cork. During that time, I visited a number Amorim’s manufacturing facilities, and also its research and design laboratory, where I learned of a new closure Amorim was pioneering at the time, in collaboration with Owens-Illinois Inc., the world’s largest manufacturer of glass containers for the food and beverage industry.

Amorim Cork chairman Antonio Amorim was excited by the new development, as it addressed one of the perceived “failings” of cork over screw cap closures – the inconvenience of having to carry a corkscrew for opening that impromptu bottle of wine. Two and a bit years later, the Helix closure became a reality, and it finally hit our shores at the beginning of this year.

So what exactly is the Helix closure? It consists of an agglomerated cork – essentially treated cork granules mixed with resin which is compressed under heat to form a cork closure – and a glass bottle with an internal thread finish in the neck.

So what, you might ask? A cork is a cork is a cork, and you need a cork screw to get it out. Not so with the Helix closure. It combines the ease and convenience of the contemporary screw cap closure, with the aesthetic cachet of the classic cork closure.

The inaugural product bottled under Helix closure in South Africa, is the 2015 Krone Chardonnay Pinot Noir, which unlike its European contemporaries, has opted for a Champagne-like image.

The closure itself is similar to a Champagne cork in form, and the wrap-around lead capsule encapsulates the closure completely, in the same style as a Champagne or methode cap classique (MCC) bottle.

No wire basket is needed as the contents are not under pressure, but the capsule is removed in the same manner as that of a bubbly bottle, and the removal of the cork is also similar: grip the base of the bottle in the palm of one hand, while twisting and pulling the cork with the other to extract it.

The cork extracts handily enough, and resealing it is a breeze: simply screw the cork firmly back in to the threaded neck of the bottle, without bothering to line up the “threads”, and voila.

And the seal is really good. Even lying on its side, the closure does not leak, whereas I’ve often had to clean up a mess the following morning after putting an unfinished bottle of wine under screw cap closure into the fridge.

The machine for making the bottles is supplied by Owens-Illinois, requiring an investment of about R500 000, I am told, but local glass maker Consol is apparently contemplating acquiring the technology. In the meantime, the bottles are imported from Europe.

Another big checkmark for the Helix closure is its reusability.

In an era where “reduce, reuse, recycle” is the mantra, the Helix-closed bottle makes ideal for salad dressing, vinegar, oil, or even as a water bottle. At one of the launch events I attended for the closure at the Twelve Apostles Hotel recently, all of the water served during lunch was in Helix-closed bottles.

The Krone Chardonnay Pinot Noir is currently the only local wine under Helix-closure, but I’m given to understand that a number of prominent local wine producers are considering using the closure for wines that are normally consumed within two years of bottling.

I’ve no idea what has been the investment in R&D and manufacturing facilities by Amorim and Owens-Illinois, but it must be substantial. Not that they can’t afford it: they are respectively the world’s largest manufacturers of cork closures and glass containers, but it is axiomatic that this venture is more important to Amorim, which has staked its future on continued dominance in the wine closure market, in the face of ever-increasing competition from the manufacturers of alternative closure systems.

The Helix closure ticks a number of boxes that ought to tickle the fancy of the consumer: a convenient, completely natural, reusable product, which retains the aesthetic appeal of traditional cork, but it remains to be seen whether or not it will capture the imagination of the market.