Are we really going to talk about cork? I confess that this was my initial reaction when I was invited to meet with representatives of APCOR (Portuguese Cork Association). As a wine lover, I absolutely respect cork as an essential part of the wine preservation process. But can talking about a bottle closure be as sexy as talking about wine? Maybe cork fever is contagious but I spent almost 2 hours corking out with Portuguese cork gurus João Rui Gomes Ferreira (President of APCOR) and Carlos de Jesus, (Operational Director, APCOR). So I begin with an apology to cork - please forgive me for taking you for granted all these years. You're so much more than a bottle closure, you are the humble yet effective bodyguard that keeps wine safe and enables it to mature gracefully.
image courtesy of APCOR
Let's start with the basics. What is cork and where does it come from? A 100% natural plant tissue, cork is extracted from the bark of the cork oak tree. The trees are not harmed nor cut down during the extraction process. Cork bark actually regenerates and can be harvested again. A sustainable product, cork is 100% natural, reusable, and recyclable. One of the richest eco-systems on the planet, worldwide there are more than 2.1 million hectares of cork oak forests. Portugal is home to 34% of the world's cork oak forests but these majestic trees also grow naturally iin Spain (27%), and parts of Italy and North Africa.
Cork and wine have had a longstanding relationship. A cork sealed amphora from 1BC was found in Ephseus with wine still inside! Cork sealed wine vessels were also discovered in the ancient ruins of Pompeii. 18th century advances in cork production made it the closure of choice for champagne and other wines. But like any longstanding relationship, cork and wine have had some rocky moments. As a natural product, corks have been prone to taint by TCA (Trichloroanisole), a natural compound that gives wine a dank, moldy, and musty aroma and also mutes flavors. (It should be noted that corks aren't the sole source of TCA in wine, it can be found in barrels and other wood sources.) However, the cork industry has made tremendous strides in testing and quality control measures that have greatly reduced the presence of TCA.
In an age of convenience, why bother with cork? Why do so many winemakers insist on sealing their bottles with cork given that it's labour intensive and requires the consumer to have a special tool to to extract it? It isn't just tradition, it's science. Screw caps are fine for fresh, young, and easy-drinking wines but many wine producers are reluctant to seal their important, age-worthy wines with a metal screw cap as if it were soda. Cork has the amazing and seemingly contradictory quality of being completely impermeable to both liquid and gas, while at the same time allowing oxygen into the bottle. Wine needs an ideal amount of oxygen to develop - too little and the wine can become reduced, too much and the wine can oxidize. Wine is alive and cork nurtures its development by providing a life line to a measured amount of essential oxygen. Winemaker Corey Beck of Francis Ford Coppola Winery says, "Cork is the last piece of the puzzle that extends the wine's life while allowing it to reach its maturity."
Let's not ignore tradition - there's something absolutely romantic about cork. Even the most cynical among us feel joy at the sound of a cork popping - it is a universally recognized audio cue for being in the moment and enjoying life. And many of us keep corks as mementos of special bottles shared with those we cherish. In an ever-changing world, cork is a tangible symbol that sometimes the old ways are the best of all and still have value. Like the artisan frame on a fine painting, cork quietly protects wine so that its natural beauty is enhanced.
One of my favorite winemakers, Philippe Guigal of Domaine E. Guigal said, "As closure we use exclusively cork stoppers, we still prefer this very proven method. Wine professionals often ask me why we don't use for rapid consumption wines, such as Côtes-du-Rhône whites and rosés, alternative closures and, in particular, screw-caps. My answer is that wine isn't just technique, [it] is also emotion, and behind this emotion, there are people."
I'll get out my corkscrew, pop the cork and drink to that! Cheers!