Put a Cork In It: The Remarkable Cork Industry of Spain and Portugal

December 1, 2010 8:00 am - Posted by Roland Hulme in Eat, Learn, Travel

In yesterday’s hysterical post, Wine Portfolio’s Jody Ness listed fifteen fun facts about wine – finishing off with the revelation that Portugal is the world’s leading producer of wine bottle corks.

In fact, the world ‘leading’ almost doesn’t do Portugal’s contribution justice! Along with sister cork production farms in Spain, the region actually accounts for over 80% of all wine bottle corks produced worldwide.

That means whether you’re enjoying a Napa Valley Shiraz or a bottle of fine French Champagne, the chances are the ‘pop’ you hear when you open it comes courtesy of them.

A Brief History of Corks

Cork has been used to stop vases and bottles since the days of the Egyptians, but it was enterprising vitner Dom Pérignon who first pioneered the use of corks in wine bottles. Pérignon, a Benedictine monk, used them in an effort to counter the refermentation of the local wine

During the time of Dom Pérignon, wine bottles were shut with wooden stoppers wrapped in oil-soaked rags. When sugars in the wines continued to ferment after bottling – producing the carbon dioxide that makes modern champagnes fizzy – these stoppers would often ‘pop’ off the top of the bottles – causing injury to anybody standing nearby!

He replaced the wooden stoppers with cork ones, which expanded in the necks of the bottle and safely secured the wine from bursting.

Dom Pérignon’s innovation allowed a new era of wine-making to commence – in which wines could mature in the bottle, totally sealed against oxidization. It even ushered in the process which would eventually lead to the development of Champagne (the most famous of which is named in Dom Pérignon’s honor.)

Home of Good Cork

From the earliest days of cork bottling, consumers looked towards Spain and Portugal for their corks, as they were the largest continental producers of the Quercus suber cork oak tree.

It’s from the bark of this funny looking tree that corks are produced – and environmentalists needn’t worry: No cork trees are (permanently) harmed in the process.

In fact, each tree is covered with a thick, insulating bark that protects it from forest fires, and quickly regrows once stripped. Every nine years, cork harvesters carve the bark from each tree and then leave it another decade for the cork to regrow.

Using this method some trees produce cork for more than a century and a half – and as much as 500lbs per harvest!

You Can’t Put Time in a Bottle

It’s an ancient and fascinating tradition – but sadly, one that’s under threat.

As wine has become more popular worldwide, more and more producers have started looking for alternatives to cork – including agglomerated corks (the chip board of wine corks) or plastic substitutes.

Australia is even leading the charge in screw-tops for some of their world-class wine (even teaching top sommeliers the ‘approved’ technique for opening screw tops in fine restaurants.)

A debate rages about whether these substitutes affect the wine itself – with many experts arguing that they’re perfectly suitable for the task at hand, while purists retort that ‘real’ cork adds an essential element to a wine’s richness and depth.

Agglomerated corks in particular come under attack, as they are believed to increase cork taint by exposing the wine to trichloroanisole.

Whatever the verdict, statistics agree even when the wine experts can’t: In the past decade, cork sales have dropped by more than a fifth, and the downward trend is showing no signs of reversing.

The Final Stopper

This, of course, has had a devastating affect on a region that’s relied on cork production for well over 200 years. As even cheaper alternatives become available, more and more cork orchards are forced to close, and those that remain open struggle to stay economically viable.

But perhaps the most devastating victims of the shift away from traditional cork production haven’t even been the cork farmers themselves, but rather the animals who’ve traditionally served them.

For almost two hundred years, rare breeds of hardy donkeys have hefted the cork harvest up and down the Portuguese and Spanish hillsides – like the rare breed known as the Giant Donkey of Andalucia.

These gentle giants, who rival horses in size and strength, are perfectly suited for the role and have survived extinction largely thanks to their role in cork industry. But as orders have stopped rolling in and profits have continued to shrink, many cork farmers have been being forced to replace their donkeys with tractors and ATVs instead – sometimes even abandoning the animals themselves as vet and farriers bills mount up.

Local charities have been established to help preserve the breed – but with less 500 Giant Donkeys left, doubts are rising that enough remain to introduce a breeding program.

In an industry that generally manages to balance tradition and innovation, it’s sad to see something so intrinsic to wine making’s great heritage disappear (in the case of the Giant Donkeys, quite literally.)

So perhaps next time you crack open a bottle of wine that boasts a real cork, you’ll also raise a glass to the cork harvesters of Portugal and Spain – and the gentle giant donkeys who’ve long helped them in their labors.

One Response to “Put a Cork In It: The Remarkable Cork Industry of Spain and Portugal”

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