Green Myth Buster #1: Cork is endangered

Photo: istockphoto.com/Marcelo Wain
We all know that satisfying pop when we open a bottle of wine or champagne signaling the start of a festive occasion. But more and more cork is being replaced with plastic stoppers or twist tops. Consumers are accepting the change under the misconceptions that cork trees are dying out but the real threat is the decline in demand. Cork is renewable The cork industry is under serious threat since 70 percent of cork production goes towards wine producing. The shrinking market for cork stoppers means that forests will not be cultivated. The WWF has started a Cork Conservation campaign asking consumers to buy wine cork stoppers and help the industry stay alive. "Cork extraction is one of the most environmentally-friendly harvesting processes in the world - not a single tree is cut down to get the cork. This tradition can survive, as long as demand for cork stays high, if not, the cork forests will disappear - and with them, a unique cultural and natural heritage", said Pedro Regato, WWF Mediterranean Head of Forest unit. Ancient skill Harvesting cork does not destroy the tree since it comes from the bark and not the trunk. The vegetable tissue is stripped off the tree in late spring, early summer and the tree in order to protect itself quickly forms new layers of cork. The tree is valuable for 170 years or more even though it might have been stripped 16 times at nine year intervals. Retrieving the cork from the tree is a skill handed down from generation to generation especially in Portugal where the cork industry is big business. A special hatchet is used to cut cork from the thick rugged oak tree but only after the first 20 years of growth. The outer bark is carefully peeled away leaving the inner bark completely intact. For manufacturing purposes the cork strips are dried, boiled and dried again before use. Ancient resource It appears the Greeks were the first to seal wine jugs with cork followed closely by the Romans who also used it for fishing floats and shoes. Dom Pérignon, that clever monk who discovered champagne in 1668 was the first to realize the full potential of cork as a bottle stopper. Before then wooden plugs were used. We continue use cork stoppers today bu also appreciate other products. The soft but durable cork has so many other uses today; cork flooring and wall panelling, handbags, footwear, watches, cork furniture and accessories for the house to name a few. Even NASA recognizes the heat insulating properties of the versatile cork and uses it in the construction of rockets. The practical defeats good taste There is however, one disadvantage of using cork in the wine industry. According to wine expert Chris Kissack, (also known as the Wine Doctor) cork is sometimes contaminated by a mould which is present on the tree bark at harvest. The mould can leads to "corking" where a "corked"bottle of wine develops a tawny taste, also described as as a musty, damp cardboard, old sock aroma. "It renders the wine completely undrinkable. Imagine the trauma of pouring away your wine, or even worse an old wine that is irreplaceable -- an old Bordeaux or Burgundy which you have been cellaring for several decades to be opened at a special moment.....and it is corked. Terrible," said Kissack. For this reason some wineries now use plastic and metal stoppers instead of cork. Plastic is also cheaper, its looks like cork and even pops like cork. Their main disadvantage however, is that they are difficult to extract and once extracted are almost impossible get back into the bottle. Screw caps made from aluminium or tin, provide a tight seal and can keep out oxygen for long periods. Practical yes, but unattractive and can litter the countryside. Take the risk and go back to buying wine with cork stoppers. The pop of a cork is more than just a pop. It is environmental and social protection. Alice Alech is a freelance writer based in France.