A Toast to the Curious History of
By Clifton Thuma
Ah, the pop of a cork – no other sound better says, “The Party has started!” Have you ever wondered where cork comes from or how the curious bit of bark is fashioned to close up wine for 10 or 20 years to emerge at just the desired moment? The answer is that cork is nature’s marvel – buoyant, pliable, resistant to water, ancient in its use, yet a most modern eco-friendly material.
An oak tree, the Quercus Sober, has adapted to the dry soil and strong light of southern Portugal. The bark of this tree is fashioned into cork. The Alentejo region is home to half the world’s cork production. South Florida Opulence spoke to cork oak farmer Francisco de Almeida Garret about his experiences raising this unusual crop in the town of Monte Novo. “Our cork farms have been in the family for 400 years. 2,200 acres of our estate are cork forests with 80-120 trees per acre.”
Since only 10 percent of the trees can be harvested, this leaves large areas for the native plants and wildlife to thrive. “The cork oak forest, the ‘Montados,’ is multifunctional, and in terms of biodiversity is one of the richest ecosystems in the world,” Francisco said. Each year, Alentejo oaks older than 25 years have their bark harvested by hand in the summer when the trees will not be damaged by the stripping. “At harvest time, we avoid any possible contamination from the soil. We ship the cork as soon as it is harvested to the factories that process it.” Francisco and his crews are worried the bark may become contaminated with ‘cork taint.’ This is a natural fungus in the soil. Recent technology has improved the quality of corks, all in an effort to make the best natural stopper. But before these practices, some wine bottles seemed to develop a musty, odd taste. Some wineries shifted away from cork and used plastic cylinders or even screw caps to close their wine bottles. While these rather unpoetic materials avoided the taint concern, they presented another problem. The French call great wine of an esteemed estate or excellent vintage ‘Vin Garde,’ wines to be guarded. They are wines to be laid down in a quiet, secure, cool vault to ‘cellar’ and develop in the bottle. Ten years of aging for Bordeaux’s great chateaux and 20 for the deep wines of vintage port are needed. There is debate about what is happening, but several centuries of experience have shown that high quality natural corks of good length allow a slow ‘maturing’ of the wine. As to the new plastic cylinders, no one knows what two decades or 10 might do to the wine. We do know that aluminum caps will remain intact, but how does the wine evolve under them? The grand chateaux are staying with natural cork. And maybe we all should. If wine producers still use natural cork, then Francisco’s three children can repeat the old adage of the farmers of the Montados:
“Vinhas das minhas, Olivias dos meus Pais e Montados dos meus Antepassados.” (Vineyards of mine, Olive Groves of my parents and Cork Forests of my ancestors.) “I would like Americans to know our cork farm is very important for biodiversity, conservation and carbon sink, and that cork stoppers are essential for the economic sustainability of the ‘Montado’ ecosystem. “And …I love what I do…”
Each year, Alentejo oaks older than 25 years have their cork bark harvested by hand in the summer when the trees will not be damaged by the stripping. The Alentejo region in Portugal is home to half the world’s cork production.