“You have a perfect storm for this age gravitating toward alternative closures,” he concluded.
* * *
Before cork taint frightened so many winemakers into abandoning cork, the material had helped to successfully preserve fine wines for centuries. In fact, the 2010 discovery of 168 bottles of champagne in a Baltic Sea shipwreck was a testament to this ability: The food biochemist who led the scientific team that tested the 170-year-old champagne called it “incredible.”
Cork’s sealing qualities stem from its natural compressibility—a result of cork’s unique cell structure, which flexes under pressure while allowing trapped air to function as a counter-pressure. This feature allows a cork to be pressed into a smaller physical space and yet spring back to its original form when removed. Cork’s compressibility is perhaps most apparent when uncorking a wine bottle, but it can also be felt when wearing a pair of cork-soled shoes, for example, or when walking on cork floors. Step after step, cork absorbs the pressure and then instantly springs back to its original form, no worse for the wear.
Following the cork-taint scare, the cork industry set out to improve both its product and its image. Cork producers invested in new equipment and worked to refine production techniques, contributing to a sharp decline in tainted wine. Recent tests by the Cork Quality Council show a 95 percent reduction in TCA since 2001.
They also began promoting cork’s environmental benefits, noting that the production of cork wine stoppers is a “carbon-negative” process: The seven million acres of cork forest around the Mediterranean offset 20 million tons of CO2 each year, and the trees are not cut down to produce cork closures—because only the bark is removed, the production of cork products is completely sustainable.
Once stripped from the tree, the cork bark grows back and is harvested again a decade later. This process is repeated over and over throughout the tree’s lifetime, which may exceed 200 years. Stripping a cork oak of its bark also enhances its ability to absorb carbon dioxide; in Portugal alone, cork trees help offset over 10 million tons of CO2 every year.
The cork forests of Portugal, the world’s leading supplier of cork, feature some of the greatest biodiversity in the world. According to the World Wildlife Fund, these forests contain the highest levels of plant diversity found anywhere in the world—reaching levels of 135 species per square meter—while also providing a habitat for endangered animal species like the Iberian lynx and Barbary deer. Demand for cork products, especially wine stoppers, helps preserve the cork forests, which would otherwise be neglected or replaced with non-native trees.
What’s more, healthy, well-managed cork forests benefit the economies around them—cork production provides some of the world’s last, well-paying agricultural jobs, supporting, directly and indirectly, an estimated 100,000 people in Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. The industry employs roughly 35,000 people in the Iberian Peninsula, alone, and contributes approximately 10 million Euros (more than $11 million dollars) annually to the rural economy of Morocco.