Azaruja, Portugal 10/2013
There was a time when good wine came in a gallon jug with a screw cap. Perhaps we can all remember Carlo Rossi, “No wine is sold before its time”, or good old Red Mountain Burgundy. As our tastes and perhaps our budget improved, we graduated to better wines that were preserved with these little things called corks. I had always wondered what exactly the story was about corks. I only knew that the majority of them came from Portugal, so here we were in the town of Azaruja in the Alentejo region of southern Portugal, one of many centers of cork harvesting.
As we drove into town, the main drag was lined with cork processing plants. It was evening so we pulled into in the center of town and camped next to the bullring. It was a quiet friendly village atmosphere. Our cork education would begin in the morning.
The Cortiçarte-Arte em Cortiça, Lda. Company was one of the largest processing plants and even had a store selling cork products. This was amazing. We had no idea of the number of things that can be made with cork. Decorative items, lamps, purses, shoes, hot pads, clothing, even items like aprons and umbrellas. Who would ever guess? Some of the material felt like silk!
The open forests of cork trees in the Alentejo region and further south leave no sign of being depleted. Each tree gets an initial cutting where the bark is peeled off, sometime between June and August. A new layer of cork bark grows and no damage is done to the tree. The tree is marked and will remain for nine years before the cork bark can be harvested again.
At the processing plant the cork is washed in hot water to kill bacteria and other microbes. It is then sorted for use. Selections of cork are shipped to other plants in northern Portugal near Porto. There is little waste. Cork unusable for decorative items or wine & other stoppers is ground and pressed into cork-based material used for floors and building products.
Yes, many wineries are starting to use synthetic material and even, (shudder), screw caps, but you can rest assured, the next time you open that bottle of Old Vine Zinfandel and smell the real cork, there is more where that came from, despite the rumors from respected wineries who may have found synthetic corks cheaper to use.