22 August 2010

Screw-cap wine bottles may be threatening an ecosystem

Personally, when I spend $10 for a bottle of wine, I don't care if it has a cork cork, a plastic cork, or a screw cap (and frankly, for convenience I prefer the latter two).  But an essay at the Guardian suggests that by not using natural cork, I may be endangering the future of cork oak trees.
Deep into one of the 350 remaining cork oak forests (in my case Herdade dos Fidalgos, near Lisbon) sometime between June and August you'll suddenly come across a team of about 20 men, ranging in ages from 16 to 70, striking huge twisted trees with axes. Then, with a sensitivity you would not associate with an axe, they prise the juicy bark from the tree and it is levered from the trunk in great, satisfying pieces. From the base, right up to the beginning of the branches, it is peeled away to reveal the oak's red, nude surface underneath.

When the tree is completely harvested, the axeman takes a swig from his water barrel and moves on to the next. Periodically, a truck comes to collect the pieces of cork and take them to nearby sheds where they will be weathered for months before being processed. The truck is the only obvious exception to a process that hasn't changed since the 18th century, when montados (open cork oak woodlands) and forests here in Portugal, in southern Spain, Morocco, Algeria and Turkey began to be exploited commercially to produce wine corks. A white number is painted on the tree. It will be nine years before it's disturbed again.
This was all new to me; I didn't realize that after the cork was harvested the tree regrew a new supply.  The interesting essay goes on to discuss the ecology of cork trees ("Each tree sustains 100 species; it is pretty much the only place in which the rare short-toed eagle and extremely rare Iberian lynx will consider living...") and the recent shift in wine-bottle closure preferences.  The problem is that if noone uses cork, economic pressures will tempt owners of the cork forests to shift their "crop" to more lucrative trees:
On one side are the cork oaks that take 80 years to reach their first harvest, their canopies stretching over smaller plants. On the other side there's a fast-growing eucalyptus plantation presiding over some very dry soil. The eucalyptus will be ready to be sold for the voracious pulp and paper market in a matter of months. If the market drops further for cork, the decision for the landowner becomes a no-brainer. They plant fast-growing eucalyptus, ecosystem be damned.


    With respect, wash your mouth out.

  2. ... with cheap Pinot Grigio. Cheers.

  3. I think the problem right now is that the demand for cork is higher than the amount that can be produced, which was a catalyst for the development of alternative corks and caps.

  4. Ecologist complain about everything. Sheesh. Personally, I wish all bottles had screw caps. Do you know how many expensive Burgundy's I've opened that were corked?! Too many!! Skrew caps save your wine.

  5. David, the problem isn't supply -- there is more cork available than Portuguese landowners can sell. The problem is that the plastic cork industry has completely out-marketed and under-priced the real cork industry, and convinced wineries that plastic is not just cheaper, it's better.

    And at one time, due to ancient cork-processing traditions that had not changed a whit in hundreds of years, that was true. Cork allowed a slightly higher incidence of wine-ruining mold growth. Since the advent of the plastic cork competition, however, natural cork processing procedures have been modified. Independent tests show that today's natural corks are every bit as good as plastic for keeping the wine mold-free -- and better than plastic in every other way.

    Especially ecologically.

    Anonymous, I ride my bike through the beautiful cork oak plantations of the northern Algarve. Unlike any other agriculture industry, cork oak plantations are indistinguishable from natural forest. They are the most non-disruptive form of agriculture I have ever seen or could ever imagine. This is not an issue of "ecologists complaining." It's a very real danger to an entire ecosystem.

    Cork oaks are drought tolerant and support many native species. Eucalyptus trees suck up huge amounts of water, kill anything trying to grow beneath them, and support almost nothing native. It would be truly tragic if attitudes like yours resulted in the destruction of the cork industry. I only wish there were more agricultural products like it.

  6. Fletcher, why doesn't the Portugese cork industry do the other thing suggested in the article - pursue other applications for cork?

  7. The company named "Amorim" started cork-processing in 1870 and is the largest cork producer in the world. You can check this website for other applications for cork other the cork-stoopers.

    Cork composites

  8. Minnesotastan, there are indeed other cork applications currently in use -- the stuff is lightweight, waterproof and pretty marvelous for things like hats, believe it or not. Here in Portugal, you can buy cork hats, belts, wallets, purses, even umbrellas -- but so far as I know, they're mostly marketed to tourists as a unique Portuguese souvenir.

    These products are made from the lesser-quality leftovers of the wine cork industry, so I suspect the issue is that the cork industry hasn't really come around to viewing them as a primary product worth marketing, rather than a secondary product sold locally. And with the unique qualities of cork, there must surely be other amazing uses that the industry hasn't thought of yet.

    But stress and competition does encourage innovation. Let's hope that's the case here.

  9. Whoops, I forgot a couple of really obvious applications. The handlebar tape on my race bike, and on the bikes of millions of other cyclists, is cork-backed. And I pay a premium for that stuff, too! It's lightweight and dampens road vibration.

    Cork flooring is also great for cushioning footsteps.

    It's a sound insulator. It blocks vibrations. It's waterproof. Did I mention that it's also highly fire resistant? That is, after all, the original biological purpose of cork: to protect the oak trees from the regular wildfires of hot, dry Mediterranean summers.

  10. I did not know about (and was surprised by!) the fire resistance. Reportedly attributed to a waxy component of the cork called suberin -


    Here's a commercial link with good explanation of the advantages of using cork in a home -


  11. We've had many a good bottle of (mostly white) wine that came with a screw cap. In fact they are more convenient. A screw cap bottle will never be corked and the use of screw caps has been moving up market in the wine industry for years.

    From wikipedia entry on cork: 60% of cork is used for cork stoppers. 60% to 80% (the article contradicts itself) of the 20 billion wine bottles produced a year are stoppered with cork.


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