The first time I went to Portugal, I was a twentysomething know-nothing, especially when it came to wine. I drank swill and didn’t care what it was poured out of: a bottle sealed with a cork, a screw cap, a bottle cap, whatever. I remember driving around the countryside — Portugal is small enough to drive from one side to the other in an afternoon — and stopping by the side of the road when I saw these funny-looking trees. They looked half-naked, their smoke-colored bark peeled away from the neck down revealing a reddish brown body beneath. They were freshly harvested cork trees.
It was cool, but I didn’t think much of it until later. By the time I started writing about wine, a decade or so had passed and cork was a hot topic. Wine Spectator was reporting that up to 10% of all cork wine stoppers were tainted, a percentage most consumers would agree is far too high.
As for screw caps, they were being hailed as one of the most plausible solutions and were thoroughly embraced in places like New Zealand and across the U.S. They were said to be far more reliable than cork, seeing as there’s no risk of cork taint with screw caps. This is true. But greener? Screw caps are often associated with being the more eco-friendly option because they do not make use of trees and are made from recyclable aluminum. But this is a misconception.
Make no mistake: this is a terribly touchy subject. Screw cap proponents say that much of what I’m about to say is propaganda perpetuated by the cork industry. Cork folks respond by citing an independent study that confirms that cork is more sustainable and eco-friendly that screw caps. Screw cappers bring up TCA contamination – cork taint. Corkers come back with aging: a wine cannot mature properly in the bottle without a porous natural cork stopper.
Of course, not all wine needs to age — and most of it is consumed within 24 hours of purchase. And back and forth. And on and on. I’ve listened closely to both sides of the argument regarding cork, and I’m not anti-screw cap. I just happen to think cork is a more sustainable material. Screw caps may be made of recyclable aluminum, but for several reasons (the little plastic piece inside, most local recycling regulations) are very difficult to recycle. Cork, on the other hand, is renewable and recyclable. It’s also biodegradable over time.
Now, some myth busting.
If you’re worried about cork stoppers being produced by killing poor, innocent cork trees, don’t. Portugal’s cork forests are protected by law, while the trees are not cut down to harvest cork. It’s only the bark that is peeled from the trees, a process carried out every nine years. Reforestation programs grow cork forests by some 4% per year, a rate that the cork industry estimates translates into 100 years’ worth of product. And that doesn’t just mean wine stoppers. Cork is used for a variety of products, from food trays to furniture to flooring to fashion (I love the cork bags at FluxProductions, the material is incredibly light and a natural vegan option to leather).
You can recycle your cork stoppers at a growing number of wine shops and supermarkets across the country. ReCORK, an initiative launched by Amorim, the world’s largest cork producer, has collected more than 36 million corks since it launched in 2007. But that’s just one program. Others in countries around the world collect millions more. The same organizations plant thousands of cork trees a year.
Of course, porous natural cork will always be at risk for TCA contamination, detected by that horrible wet cardboard smell that wafts out when a wine is corked. It’s not infallible or even necessarily appropriate in many situations (trapped on a deserted beach without a corkscrew, say). But cork is renewable, recyclable, biodegradable and sustainable. Not to mention good-looking, whether it’s in the neck of your wine bottle or the sole of your shoe.
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