Popping the cork: why use the real thing

Did you know that real cork is far and away the most sustainable way to close a bottle? I didn’t. I found out when I visited the San Pietro cork forest in southern Sicily. Cork is a renewable resource that we won’t run out of if we keep investing in it.

Let’s explore the advantages and disadvantages of cork, glass, screw tops and plastic. But first, the cork trees (Quercus Suber).

Winemaker Gianfranco Daino drove me directly to the largest cork tree in the forest: a Tolkein “Treebeard” of immense proportions (nearly two meters in diameter).

That tree is no longer harvested, but Gianfranco let the way to one that recently was.

The cork is stripped off in pieces and then cut. Gianfranco Daino’s corks (see first photo above) come from these cork trees.

Cork oaks typically live 250-300 years. They have to grow for 25 years before they can be harvested every 9-12 years. The bark (cork) is stripped by hand (there is no mechanical alternative) every nine-to-12 years. The tree then regenerates another layer of cork/bark: a perfectly renewable resource. Here’s how harvesting looks:

Gianfranco explained that the forests of Santo Pietro and nearby Niscemi once formed part of a massive 30,000-hectare (74,000-acre) parcel officially deeded to the people of southeastern Sicily by Federick II, who was Holy Roman Emperor at the beginning of the 13th century and is one of my favorite historical figures.

Raised in Palermo, then the multicultural center of the Mediterranean, Frederick (1194-1250) knew Latin, Greek, Arabic, French, German and Sicilian. He was also fascinated by mathematics and worked with Fibonacci to introduce the Hindu-Arabic numeral system into Europe. His nemesis was the pope, who excommunicated him repeatedly over his refusal to lead Crusades against the Muslims in Jerusalem. (His personal entourage was Arab.)

Walking under a canopy of leafy branches in Frederick’s forest felt like stepping back in time. But as in other cork forests, high costs may be putting an end to the harvests here. The global financial crisis, which hit the U.S. in 2008 and Europe soon thereafter, led wine producers to seek cork alternatives. Glass, plastic and screw tops were cheaper and eliminated the risk of a bad cork ruining a bottle of wine. In the past ten years, cork’s share of the market has declined from 95% to 70% (source: LA Times) forcing cork prices down and making it hard for producers to recoup harvesting costs.

Consequently, cork forest owners started abandoning their trees or cutting them down to use the land in other ways. The move soon led scientists, environmentalists and economists to study cork, cork forests, and the consequences of declines in cork prices.

What they found is that real cork is by far the most environmentally friendly way to top a bottle:
-renewable (other types aren’t)
-recyclable (screw tops aren’t)
-biodegradable (other types aren’t)
-no use of petrochemicals (as in plastic)
-less energy to produce (A screw top requires more 10 times more energy to make)
-lower carbon footprint (Making a screw cap releases 24 times more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.)
(source: corkforest.org)

And, that cork forests themselves are hugely beneficial. They:
-stabilize land against erosion and desertification
-absorb CO2 (They absorb more CO2 when the trees are harvested regularly.)
-provide the basis for extraordinarily diverse eco-systems of plants, animals, birds and insects.
-preserve communities, way of life and jobs based on maintaining the forests and harvesting the cork.

Another benefit of cork is that it allows wine to “breathe” in the cellar. This tiny transfer of oxygen is what softens the tannins and mellows wine over time. Glass, plastic, and screw caps don’t allow that. There is now new technology for breathable metal corks, which may be the final blow to natural cork.

One historic problem with cork is taint. A chemical called TCA can get into the cork, giving wine a moldy, musty smell. Cork producers are now checking for the chemical and claim to have reduced the number of so-called “corked” bottles to less than one percent of the total output.

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In 2008, The Cork Forest Conservation Alliance was formed to encourage the use and recycling of cork as a means of protecting cork forests, located almost exclusively in the western Mediterranean (Portugal, Spain, Italy, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and France). Other environmental groups including the World Wildlife Fund have undertaken similar efforts. Another active group is 100percentcork.org, which hs more than 100,000 likes on 100% Cork.

The bottom line is that cork costs a little bit more in the bottle but saves money, resources, jobs, forests and communities. If those things matter to you, ask for cork and become active in cork organizations.

You can help by recycling your corks. All Whole Foods Stores recycle corks as well as these locations.

This last photo is of sunset in the cork forest.

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