Few aspects of wine have received more scrutiny in recent years than the final ingredient: the cork. And while there’s plenty to scrutinize about the little bottle stoppers (they aren’t perfect), we’d like to take some time and look at just how cool they actually are.
What is cork?
Cork comes from a type of oak tree. The little plugs we all call “corks” come from the outer layer of bark.
Why it’s special
While people have come up with many different ways to seal wine bottles, from screw caps to glass plugs to composite corks, natural corks still offer the best way to seal most types of wine. The secret is the combination of the exact elastic qualities of cork wood, and it’s slightly porous composition. The elasticity means it will seal snugly in the neck of a wine bottle, even if the bottle’s neck has some uneven curvature. The porous composition allows a very slight amount of air in to the bottle, which helps good wine age into fine wine.
People have come up with countless uses for cork wood for millenia. The Greeks used it as buoys for fishing nets. The Romans made beehives out of it. It’s been used in the soles of shoes for it’s shock absorbing qualities. Today, it has uses across many industries. But it’s as the perfect stopper for a wine bottle that cork gets its fame.
But who figured out it would work for wine? No one really knows, but it took longer than you’d think. Evidence suggests that widespread use of cork as a bottle stopper didn’t come around until the 17th century. We do know, however, that starting in 1688, Dom Perignon used them to stopper sparkling wine as he developed his Methode Champenoise of sparkling wine production.
How corks are made?
Cork’s production is cool for many reasons. For starters, around half the world’s corks come from forests in Alentejo, Portugal, itself only about a fifth of the country. The trees have to be at least 15 years old to harvest. Each subsequent harvest can only occur every 8 to 10 years.
To harvest, workers remove the bark carefully to not hurt the inner layer of bark, which protects the tree from disease. Following this method, the trees can live up to 200 years!
Next, the harvested bark is boiled then cut into stips the hieght of the desired corks. Metal tubes then punch out the final corks. After a final cleaning, they get sent all over the world to seal delicious bottles of wine!
Cork production is sustainable
Corks leave perhaps the lightest environmental footprint from of all the components of wine. The corks themselves will biodegrade, and the forests provide homes for hundreds of species of birds and other animals. Portugal has done a fantastic job maintaining and preserving their cork forests for centuries. Even accounting for rapid growth in wine production, these forest can supply the world with enough corks for the next 100 years!
We could go on and one about cork. It’s a fascinating material that only nature can provide - which makes them a lot like grapes! So next time you find yourself enjoying that distinctive *pop!* sound as you open a bottle of wine, think about how miraculous that little piece of wood truly is!