Cork, the ideal closure…

Of the natural cork wine bottle closures used in the world 7 out of 10 bottles use one.  An amazing statistic.  I have twice visited Portugal, once on an educational tour as a guest of the Amorim Corticeira and once to co-author a book on Portuguese wine. Interesting in the many, many wines we tasted, very few used anything other than cork.

I was fortunate to see the cork bark being removed from the trees and then taken through the whole procedure from the forests down south to the cork factories in Oporto where the corks are finally stamped out of the bark. Cork’s unique properties – lightness, impermeability, resistance to rot, compressibility, expandability, flexibility, amongst other things – make cork an ideal stopper for wine bottles.

Cork is a very old closure. As early as 3000 BC, cork was being used in fishing tackle in China, Egypt and Babylon. Cork remains from around 400 BC were found in Italy and were used in floats, footwear and roofing material. A container from the 1st century BC was found in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus. It not only was sealed with a cork but still contained wine. Corks still were not the closure of choice back then. As late as the mid-17th century, French wine makers used oil-soaked rags as bottle stoppers by stuffing them into the neck.

There are more than 6 million acres of cork forest around the world. Today, more than half of the world’s raw cork comes from Portugal. The precise rain, wind, and soil of this region allow cork forests to thrive. Countries like the United States have tried to plant cork forests but haven’t been very successful – the Mediterranean environment is critical!

Just about every tree has an outer layer of cork bark, but the cork oak (Quercus suber) is the primary source of most cork products in the world, including wine bottle stoppers. This tree can reach 65 feet tall and can grow quite wide – to 4 feet in diameter.

Cork is a 100% sustainable and renewable material when managed properly. Once the tree reaches maturity (25-30 years old), cork can be harvested once every nine years. The first harvest (or two) almost always produces poor quality cork but the tree can be harvested until it is approximately 200 years old. At that point, the aged tree is removed and two saplings are planted to ensure the forest continues to grow. There is a small window for separating cork from the tree without causing permanent damage. Cork is only extracted from early May to late August. Thanks to the cork bark, which acts like a shield, cork oaks usually survive forest fires and return to full growth very quickly.

The Rainforest Alliance is working with cork producers to help them achieve Forest Stewardship Council certification. By meeting the social and environmental standards required to achieve FSC certification, cork producers in the region can better ensure the protection of cork oak forests.

The cork groves in the Mediterranean Basin contain some of the world’s highest levels of forest biodiversity including endemic plants and endangered species such as the Iberian Lynx, the Iberian Imperial Eagle, and the Barbary Deer. These groves are a vital source of income for thousands of family farmers, who for generations have lived and worked in these forests. The cork groves absorb millions of tons of CO2 each year helping to combat global warming. The forests also provide the greatest defense against the desertification of this region. In short, the cork forests are one of the most sustainable and environmentally harvested forests in the world.

So much going into such a tiny object.