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Checking Out Your Cork At Its Source
by Dan Clarke

The cork industry is in trouble.
The simple version of the story is that an alarming percentage of wines are found to be contaminated and that the problem could be prevented if wineries switched from cork stoppers to plastic ones-or to screwcap closures. But, thatís an over-simplification. Reality is more complex.
Two weeks ago I traveled to Portugal to see first-hand the harvesting and processing of cork. Others visiting during this Julyís cork harvest included fellow journalists from England, Germany, Italy, Chile, Columbia, the United States, South Africa and Australia. Our trip was sponsored by the Portuguese Cork Association (Associacao Portuguesa de Cortica or APCOR). I had initial reservations about accepting, but APCOR didnít seem to "attach any strings" to the invitation and I was damn sure that I wasnít going to be seduced into writing anything I didnít believe on my return. I retain two biases I had before I went to Portugal-that plastic stoppers are abhorrent, and that tainted wine is, indeed, a real problem. But now Iím more knowledgeable and have first-hand experience visiting the montados (cork oak forests) and a modern cork manufacturing facility.
Next week weíll bring you the story of how cork is processed into bottle closures. Today letís take a look at the raw material. What is it? How is it grown?
Cork forests are found all around the Mediterranean. Portugal is the largest grower with about 725,000 hectares of forest land. Spain is also a major player, as is Algeria. Nations growing lesser amounts include Italy, Morocco, Tunisia and France.
Natural cork bottle stoppers are produced from the bark of the cork oak tree (quercos suber). This forestry is definitely a form of "sustainable agriculture." Itís a long, slow process. A representative of the industry told me Portuguese farmers have a saying that, "If you plant for yourself, you plant vines. If you plant for your children you plant olives. But if youíre planting for your grandchildren, you plant cork oak."
A tree must mature to over 30 years of age before it provides its first commercial harvest for cork stoppers. The first stripping of bark results in what is known as "virgin cork," which is unusable. Nine years later, the second harvest yields cork applicable for less-demanding environments, such as being granulated for flooring. Wait another nine years and you begin to harvest "amadia cork" suitable for processing as bottle stoppers. From that time forward you can harvest the tree each nine years, through its productive lifespan of about 150 years. This nine-year-cycle is regulated by the government. I was told that there is a petition process whereby a grower could seek official approval to harvest a particularly robust and fast-growing tree a year early but, given the paperwork involved, the process might take a year anyway. After being harvested, each stripped tree must be marked with the last digit of the harvest date, so trees worked last month will all have "2" painted on them.
The crew I watched on Friday morning were Portuguese. They work the montados during the harvesting season of June and July, later migrating to other parts of Europe to labor in other crops. Each crew will have a boss, who apparently acts as labor contractor and foreman. He is responsible for the performance of his men and handles any negotiations with the forest owner. Like grape pickers, cork harvesters can be paid by piecework. Fast ones can make 100 Euros or more each day, but as with grape pickers, speed can lead to sloppiness and some owners prefer to pay wages and ensure quality results.
We have traveled to the Alentejo, about two hours east of Lisbon, to visit a cork forest. My group of writers arrives by mid-morning, mindful that in the hot weather the harvesters start just after dawn when itís still cool and knock off by early afternoon. This process probably hasnít changed in hundreds of years. There are no chain saws in this forest, only short axes. The broad blade is used first in a tentative vertical cut. The axeman then wiggles the blade a bit, listening for the sound that will tell him itís o.k. to proceed. (A couple of times I saw a cutter abandon a tree. What the problem was I didnít know-perhaps it just wasnít ready, nine years old or not.)
Most of the time the cutter will continue to define a plank-shaped piece of bark with the axe blade, then use the wooden axe-handle to loosen the bark and push it off the tree. Large, uniform planks are the most desirable. Itís often necessary to climb into the larger trees to work. Thereís an obvious danger when youíre using a cutting tool while in a shaky position. Injuries are not unknown. Falling out of a tree without an axe in your hand would be dangerous enough.
These forests are also natural preserves, which support a great biodiversity. Weíve read that within them are such wildlife as nesting black storks, Iberian Imperial Eagles, wild boars and Iberian lynxes. None of these creatures shows up during the day we are watching the harvest, but a one point a small bull comes tearing through the forest below us, zigging and zagging and then gone. Antonio Teixeira, the forest owner, tells us that it is a juvenile toro, bred nearby for bullfighting and seems more amused than frightened.
Cutters move quickly from tree to tree, leaving the planks to be picked up a fellow who loads them onto a truck (or, in the case of the steep forest we saw being worked, onto a trailer pulled behind a surer-footed tractor). They are then removed to a storage deck elsewhere on the property before they are eventually transported to the processing plant. These cork planks are a valuable, untraceable commodity resting in some pretty isolated areas. "Cork rustling" is not unknown. Owners usually have an armed custodian on site until the cork is trucked to the factory.

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