Put a Cork in it – The Cork Trees of Portugal
Ever think about where that cork came from that you just pulled (maybe in pieces) from your wine bottle? If you’re like us, the answer would be a resounding “Never” and maybe a suggestion to “Get a life.” Sometimes an item that we see daily, handle and casually toss away when we’re through with it takes on a whole new significance when we learn more about it. Until we moved to the Algarve Region of Portugal, all we knew about cork was that it was handy to pin notes on, provided a cushioning footbed in our favorite sandals, served as a convenient little coaster to prevent those unsightly rings on our table and lent a festive “Pop!” when pulled from a bottle of quality champagne. However, in the souvenir shops and vendor stalls found in Lagos and other towns up and down the coast of Portugal, cork products are a big business and you might wonder just what all the fuss is about.
Our curiosity was piqued and, when we mentioned our newly found interest in cork (who would have thought?) a friend of ours told us about a tour given by the family owned company, Novacortiça Cork Factory. We booked a visit online and set off one morning on a pleasant one-hour drive to nearby São Brás de Alportel, a village in the foothills of the Serra do Caldeirão mountains, regarded by those in the know as one of the best regions of cork in the world. It wasn’t hard to find the place (and yeah, there was a big sign too!) as there were huge piles of tree bark, almost all neatly stacked and baled in the front and along the sides of the building. And the smell? A bit hard to describe but an aromatic combination of sweet and earthy that took us back several years to stacking freshly cut wood for our fireplace. Only better.
It all starts with Portugal’s national tree, protected by a strict law that makes it illegal to cut down any cork tree in Portugal without permission from the government. It takes twenty-five years for the cork oak to grow large enough for the first stripping of the bark in the hot summer months by a highly skilled cutter, a tirador, who peels away door-sized cuttings using a specifically purposed hand-axe. The virgin cork has an irregular structure and is very rough and brittle, hence its main use is as wall and flooring insulation. The second cutting, after a period of 9 years or more, in which the outer bark regenerates, yields a denser bark but it isn’t until the third cutting, that occurs any time after the tree is 43 years old, that a high quality cork, compressed and pliable and suitable for wine stoppers, is finally harvested. Which makes the Portuguese saying, “Plant a cork oak for your grandchildren” easy to understand. And, since the trees can live up to 250 years old and yield a harvest every nine years (the year of the stripping is painted on the bark) they can be a valuable heritage for many future generations.
We sat through a well-presented lecture about how cork is processed and wine stoppers are made before our tour of the plant and asked so many questions that the German couple next to us started giving us dirty looks that perfectly conveyed the meaning, “Let’s get a move-on, you nerds!” as well as “Get a life.” Once the actual tour started we still asked questions but tried not to embarrass ourselves further while we racked up “most fascinated tourist” points with our guide.
There are several steps that go into making the heretofore underappreciated wine stopper:
- The pieces of harvested cork are boiled to remove dirt and insects which also softens it and makes it easier to work with.
- The rough outer layer of bark is removed by hand.
- The planks are sorted by quality and thickness and cut into pieces that make them easier to work with.
- Whole bottle stoppers or the discs that comprise the “technical corks” can be hand or machine punched .
- The majority of Novacortica Cork Factory’s end product are the discs for the more economical “technical corks” or “one-plus-one corks.” A cylinder of agglomerate cork comprises the center of the bottle stopper with a disc of natural cork at each end. The disc portion of the cork is what comes into contact with the wine so that the taste is not tainted.
The beauty of any product made with cork is that there is no waste. Any cork scrap can be ground up, molded into large blocks or pressed into sheets to make fabrics and upholstery, handbags, shoes, hats, flooring, fishing floats and even surfboards. It can be textured, dyed and burned. It’s completely natural, completely renewable and completely recyclable.
We can honestly say we’ll never look at a “cork” the same way again!
A few factoids:
- Cork stoppers for different qualities of wine range from 5 cents to 3 euros (about $3.36) for the finest of champagnes.
- Portugal produces 50% of the world’s cork. Cork oaks also grow in the Mediterranean climates of Spain, Algeria, Morocco, France, Italy and Tunisia.
- Cork has a honeycomb cell structure which gives it remarkable insulating properties. It’s flexible, compressible and elastic as well as lightweight, impermeable, durable and hypoallergenic.
- The cork oak forests have been called “Europe’s Amazon forests” and are amazingly biodiverse regions that conserve water and soil as well as provide wildlife habitat. Cork oak trees store carbon (and reduce greenhouse gases) in order to regenerate their bark.
- And lastly, here’s a link about Wine Corks that has even more fascinating information. Thanks Dyanne at TravelnLass.com for sharing the heads-up with us!
By Anita and Richard