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Twisting Open The Secrets Of Portugal's Cork Empire

In the hands of the same family since 1870, the world's largest producer of corks almost disappeared in the early 2000s. Today, this gem of Portuguese industry has not only reconquered its historic market, but has made cork the darling of many other sectors.

Craftsman slicing a piece of cork.

Craftsman slicing a piece of cork.

Amorim Cork via Facebook
Nathalie Villard

PORTO DE SANTA MARIA DA FEIRA — In the courtyard, mountains of bark await their turn before moving onto the conveyor belts. Scanned from every angle, they are distributed according to the thickness of their cork layer, before an artificial intelligence system scans them with cameras and tells robots where to drill, turning the bark into small cylinders. Nearby, a dozen human operators perform the same work by hand and eye. "Their expertise is unique, and we reserve it for our best customers," explains Carlos de Jesus, marketing director for cork company Amorim.

Once cut into perfect-looking corks, they undergo a final test. Conceiçao Loja, bending over bags ready for shipment, spots some with micro-defects. "Does it change the quality of the wine? No. But if you're a prestigious château, you expect everything to be perfect," proudly says the technician with 37 years' experience under her belt.

It's impossible to miss the factories along the 25 kilometers that separate Porto, Portugal from Santa Maria da Feira, Amorim's stronghold. Similar to the one we surveyed on this March morning, they're everywhere, churning out over 6 billion corks a year, which is half of the world's entire production. But wine and champagne houses, the company's long-standing customers, are not the only ones to benefit: from shoe soles to surfboards, insulation panels to rocket noses, stadium floors to ship decks, Amorim cork is everywhere.

"That's the beauty of this material: nothing is lost, and there are so many uses for it," says Antonio Amorim, 54, head of this flagship of Portuguese industry which has operations on five continents. And at the rate his engineers file patents, we haven't seen anything yet, even though sales have just topped the billion euro mark, which is twice as much as 10 years ago.

The gem of Portugal

It's as if dozens of sectors have suddenly discovered the virtues of cork. Portugal, which is home to 34% of the world's cork oak forests (ahead of Spain, which has 27%), ticks a lot of boxes.

It's the industry standard for the world's finest wines, and helped the family become the richest in Portugal

A quick botanical reminder: cork is composed of microscopic cells containing a mixture of gas and suberin, a natural wax. This unique mixture gives cork a multitude of properties: 100% biodegradable and recyclable, an excellent thermal and acoustic insulator, impervious to liquids, fire-resistant, elastic, light and even eco-friendly, since oak forests retain twenty times more CO2 than the processing of their bark emits.

The Amorim family have been cork enthusiasts for more than a century and a half. As early as 1870, Antonio Alves Amorim opened a small workshop producing corks for barrels of port wine, a spirit highly prized by the English at the time. The business flourished. By the 1930s, 200 workers were employed in what had become the country's largest cork factory. France became its first market.

But in March 1944, a fire destroyed the factory. Saddled with debt, the family decided to rebuild a larger, more modern factory. This was achieved by 1950. In 1963, the founder's grandson, Américo Amorim, took the helm, at the age of just 30. Traveling to wineries all over the world, he and his brothers made Amorim corks the industry standard for the world's finest wines, and helped their family become the richest in Portugal.

In the 1980s, the family began to invest in key sectors of the Portuguese economy: tourism, banking, real estate, energy and more. The group was determined to take over from its competitors, and needed fresh money. So, in 1988, it was floated on the Lisbon Stock Exchange, with the Amorim family retaining a 71% stake.

Women lifting pieces of cork.

Amorim woman lifting pieces of cork.

Amorim Cork via Facebook

Conclave of last chance

By the end of the 1990s, a crisis hit. Competing with plastic closures and screw caps, the Portuguese champion saw its market share plummet. "For the first time in 130 years, we found ourselves threatened by alternative materials that were more reliable, less expensive, easier to use and popular with emerging wine markets — Australia in particular," admits Antonio Amorim, who joined the company in 1996 after studying in the UK and France. "But even as a child, I used to accompany my father to the factory on Saturdays," recalls this lover of fine wines in the dining room of his ancestors' recently restored home, next to the company's headquarters.

By the early 2000s, losses were adding up, and a strategic decision was needed. At the end of January, a family meeting was held in Caramulo, a mountain range in central Portugal, attended by the group's top management. All options were put on the table, "including the option of moving towards plastics and aluminum," says Antonio Amorim, who also speaks perfect French. The verdict? No backing down. "Convinced of the unique potential of cork, we decided to stay with it," he says. But on one condition. "Innovate," the industrialist insists, before adding: "A lot of people thought we were crazy." Especially since, in 2001, at the age of 34, he was called upon to replace his uncle Américo. Not a piece of cake. "Succeeding Portugal's best-known boss in the only sector in which our country was a world leader did put a bit ofpressure on me, its true" he says with a smile.

Born near Porto in 1870, the world's cork champion is still in the hands of the founder's descendants. Although a third of the capital has been listed on the Lisbon Stock Exchange since 1988, 71% is still held equally by the two branches of the family.

On one side, the three children of Américo Amorim, the group's former CEO who died in 2017 and was long ranked Portugal's richest man. On the other, his brother's three heirs, including the current head of the group, Antonio. Apart from the historic cork business, each family branch has diversified, via its family office, into several key sectors of the Portuguese economy such as tourism, real estate, banking and energy.

\u200bMen unhooking a piece of cork from a tree.

Men unhooking a piece of cork from a tree.

Amorim Cork via Facebook

50 new patents filed

The first priority for its engineers? To eradicate any risk of contamination by TCA (trichloroanisole), the organic compound produced by bark molds and responsible for the dreaded "cork taste," which can ruin wine. This challenge required six years of research and a €14 million investment. But in June 2016, it was mission accomplished. Amorim launched its NDtech screening technology, becoming the first producer in the world to guarantee its corks are 100% TCA-free when they leave its plants. "Thanks to ultra-fast chromatography, they are scanned one by one – no competitor does that," says Carlos de Jesus. Once TCA has been beaten, other innovations will follow.

The finish is just as meticulous. Excellence must be visible.

"We've registered around 50 patents since 2011," says Miguel Cabral, head of the group's main laboratory. Those patents include the Naturity, Xpür and Qork technologies, which, among other things, guarantee an average negative value of 300 grams of CO2 per cork. "This allows wine professionals to drastically reduce their carbon footprint," emphasizes Franck Autard, head of Amorim France.

The most prestigious estates understood this long before anyone else. Even during the terrible decade of 2000-2010, they never stopped believing in the virtues of cork. This is particularly true of the champagne houses. "Their loyalty is equal to their demands, which is a tremendous stimulus for us," says Antonio Amorim. Dom Pérignon, Moët & Chandon, Ruinart (brands belonging to LVMH, which also owns Les Echos), Roederer — at the Santa Maria de Lamas plant, the world's largest dedicated to sparkling wine corks, each major house has its own dedicated production line. "We offer them tailor-made cork blends, according to the winemaking and aging methods of their oenologists," explains Ernesto Pereira, site manager, who visits Champagne every two months.

The finish is just as meticulous. Excellence must be visible. Particularly for exceptional wines such as Château d'Yquem, in Bordeaux, or Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, in Burgundy. "They demand that both ends have a 'mirror' appearance, as we say in our jargon, i.e. perfectly homogeneous," Franck Autard explains. A detail that comes at a price: €3 each, compared with a few tens of cents for the general public. Finally, there's branding, which can be done by fire, laser or ink, with a drawing, a castle coat-of-arms, a Latin quotation and more.

Cork, the new material of choice for designers

Like more and more of his counterparts, Daniel Michalik aims to "decarbonize his profession," he explains. "Cork is the ideal material for this: not only does it absorb ambient noise, is soft to the touch, elastic and water-resistant, but it also has a negative carbon footprint," says the New York designer, who has long used cork in his decorative objects and furniture, like British designers Tom Dixon and Jasper Morrison.

A teacher at New York's Parsons School of Design, Michalik also introduces his students to the virtues of this material. He even organizes a two-week workshop for them at Amorim to learn how to incorporate it into their creations. When we met them last March, these budding designers were working on toy prototypes.

The new star of architecture

Antonio Amorim also began to explore a host of new uses for cork. "If we listened to Antonio Amorim, we could make everything out of cork," jokes Eduardo Soares, the group's research head in charge of imagining these outlets. What has his team of 20 engineers come up with? Rail pads, expansion joints for concrete construction, anti-vibration floor tile — and in recent years, Amorim cork has made a remarkable entry into architecture.

From Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron's building for the Serpentine Gallery in London, to architect Joao Luis Carrilho da Graça's maritime terminal in Lisbon, to Fosbury Architecture's Italian pavilion for the Venice Biennale 2023, cork has become the praised material for many agencies.

Once these new applications have been patented, the production chains can start running. “Barely 30% of bark is used for corks," says Luis Ferrao, manager of the Amorim Cork Composites plant in Santa Maria da Feira. Here, we transform the rest into components used in some 20 sectors. And for some of them, production rates are high. On this March morning, huge boxes can be seen ready to be loaded onto trucks bound for Germany. "These are granules for the soles of Birkenstock sandals. We ship them 3,200 tonnes a year," explains Luis Ferrao, striding along the world's largest site dedicated to cork derivatives.

The names of other customers can be spotted: Decathlon, Nike, Leroy Merlin, Ikea; our plant manager has an appointment with a team of the Swedish furniture giant. "We manufacture 50,000 trivets a day for them, and are working on a new model, soon to be tested in Denmark and Finland," confides the engineer.

Woman holding a cork stopper.

Cork stoppers are still the product of an outstanding alliance between man and machine that has been working out for centuries.

Amorim Cork via Facebook

The art of taming oak

The problem is that, while demand is booming, the supply of cork is dictated by the rhythm of Mother Nature. "The harvesting of oak trees follows an immutable and highly regulated cycle," explains Carlos de Jesus, as he takes us on a tour of the Rio Frio region and its magnificent forests, which stretch as far as the eye can see. "On a young tree, you have to wait 25 years before you can harvest cork for the first time, and then another nine years before the bark grows back. And for corks, the cork only reaches sufficient quality after the third harvest. That's 42 years of waiting! So Amorim had no choice but to change gear."

Until now, the group has always sourced its bark from farmers, but it has just acquired an 8,000-hectare forest north-east of Lisbon for €57 million. The project? “To plant young trees and shorten their growth cycle from 25 to ten years using micro-irrigation techniques," explains Antonio Amorim. "It's our next R&D project, and undoubtedly one of the most difficult we've ever undertaken."

It's yet another challenge taken up by this astonishing dynasty. We'll probably have to wait for the fifth generation to take the helm to find out if it is a success. Antonio Amorim's children and his nieces and nephews are mostly still students. Will one succeed him? "It's too early to say," he replies. Moment of silence. "The Chairman of the Supervisory Board will always be an Amorim," he continues. And the managing director? "Not necessarily."

The best-paid agricultural job in the world

Over €150 a day, or almost €10,000 for the three months of harvesting from June to August. If the 3,000 "cork harvesters" employed by the cork oak forests of Portugal and Spain are so well paid, it's first and foremost because their know-how – handed down from generation to generation – is unique.

Carried out with small axes, the debarking operation is extremely delicate. The bark stripper selects the deepest slits in the bark, and pushes in the ax before shifting it to loosen the cork from the trunk. The trick is to avoid severing the wood's vessels, as an injury could disrupt bark regrowth. But these cork harvesters wages are also explained by their very physical work, often in scorching temperatures.

Most of the major players in the space industry are equipping their rockets with Amorim cork-based composite materials, notably in the nose cone and booster, including the European Space Agency's Ariane 6 and Elon Musk's SpaceX. "This is the area that has seen the strongest growth in 2022," confirms Eduardo Soares, innovation manager for the Portuguese group.

Appreciated for its lightweight, insulating and non-flammable qualities, cork also mixes well with other materials. "But in a sector like space, the certification of new components requires years of research," recalls Eduardo Soares.

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