Corks Popping


One of the more evocative sounds in life is that of the pop made when you draw a cork. Of course, some wines - a few - come to you in screw-tops, and that seemed logical. Easier. Has the fashion passed? Anyway. To real corks and their source. And, as most people know, these corks come from the bark of a particular oak - the cork oak or Quercus suber. In Portugal, in Spain and even in Mediterranean France, you will often see a tree with its bark stripped off to a height, maybe, of six or seven feet or more, leaving a bright red, bare trunk. The rest has gone to keep your wine hygienically in the bottle. The Quercus suber is an evergreen with pointed holly-like spikes.

The trees are first stripped when they reach 20 years or so and after that at nine- or ten-year intervals. They have a very productive life, for they may live to 500 years of age. The bark stripped off is dried, according to one source, then boiled in water "to remove impurities and soften it". Cork is used for other purposes than as bottle-stoppers, and hundreds of the corks that we know come from one stripping. And the growers of these trees are having their livelihood threatened by the move, by British supermarkets, says BBC Wildlife magazine, which are using substitute plastic corks.

Well isn't that good, you might say; preserving the natural tree. Not at all. The cork oak thrives on producing its fine cork and, if the natural is to be overtaken by the substitute, one of the world's wholly sustainable industries could be out of business. Thousands of small farmers in those countries derive their main livelihood from the forests, including this oak. Nowadays so many business claim that they are concerned about the environment, but this oak thrives on being stripped and used in the way described above.

Can it be that someone has passed on the wrong message - that stripping the bark destroys the tree or even that one had to cut down the whole tree to get you traditional corks? Anyway, always opt for the normal, mature cork, if you get the chance. It helps the small Spanish and Portuguese farmers.