Updated: Aug 31, 2020
While the cork is one of the many historically versatile materials that has been used for thousands of years as a stopper in bottles, ancient Greeks and Romans also made good use of it as floats for fishing nets, sandals, wine bottle stoppers and even personal flotation devices for fishermen.
As late as the mid-17th century, French vintners did not use cork stoppers, using instead oil-soaked rags stuffed into the necks of bottles. In the 18th century, while in England the physician Robert Hooke obtained the first microscopic images of cork using a microscope that he himself had designed in France, the monk Dom Pierre Pérignon, treasurer of the Hautvillers Abbey began to use cork to seal bottles of his famous Dom Pérignon champagne.
In my previous article around how to get better value for better wine, I touch on corks as a guide I consider when blindly buying wine. Besides the character and personality they bring to my dinner party, corks also enhance and heighten my wine experience in a special way that no cap-screw would compete with. There is not greater experience than the process of uncorking the bottle of wine followed by the sound of the cork popping out, bringing back that wine fantasia into any wine experience.
This impermeable buoyant material which is the phellem layer of bark tissue has been around for the past 400 years as the preferred wine sealant and is harvested for commercial use primarily. It is extracted from the bark of a variety of oak tree, Quercus Suber which is endemic to southwest Europe and northwest Africa.
Generally, corks preserve the properties of wine over time and ensure that it develops correctly in the bottle while preventing entry of large amounts of oxygen which would damage the wine. They also act as a barrier against bacteria and mould.
With the cork industry estimated at a worth of about $1.3 billion a year, Portugal is the leading world cork producer producing nearly 50% of the world’s production and shipping about 940 million euros a year in cork-based products followed by Spain at 25% of the world’s cork production and the rest coming from France, Italy, Algeria and Morocco.
Allow me to drag you into more of my cork highs;
1. Breathable sealant
Allows the wine to breathe
Cork is a natural substance that has been used for wine stoppers for hundreds of years, and has much more to give than it takes. Due to its porous nature, the cork allows oxygen through the cork enabling the wine to breathe in the bottle as it matures.
“Cork is flexible, elastic, light, compressible and has the ability to thermally insulate as well as allowing microscopic amounts of O2 into the wine – vital for long term wine maturation.”
2. Eco- Friendly
Cork is a 100% sustainable and renewable natural resource.
While we have to nurture our environment and save trees, in the cork production is an extraordinary process of transformation where nothing is wasted; no trees are felled, and the cork is harvested without harming the tree.
The cork forests of Portugal survive because we use corks in wine bottles. These forests with their unique flora and fauna thrive because the trees are nurtured for their bark. The process is performed with extreme consciousness and focus by making a vertical and then a horizontal incision on the trunk, and carefully pulling off the cork plank which is stripped every nine to ten years until the tree is about 200 years old.
The Quercus Suber, takes about 25 years from planting to bear its first harvest of outer bark. This is the only species whose bark regenerates itself after each harvest and the trees must be at least 40 years old before the first extraction takes place. The layers of bark are then washed and cut into pieces. Eventually, these barks are punched to create corks that are assessed for quality and colour before heading to wineries all over the world. The residue of this process is then sent on to be ground into granules that will be glued together to make mats, flooring and Champagne corks.
The source of the cork gives me great pleasure in enjoying my corked wine knowing that it does not cause harm to my environment but rather the contrary.