Natural cork and wine share a long lasting love story. A natural cork features such qualities that till this day couldn't be improved or even imitated by any of men's inventions. By allowing the wine to develop naturally, it enhances its flavor, and still protects the environment by being the only truly sustainable wine stopper.
The cork stopper is the most famous product of the cork industry and, in order to adapt to a great variety of bottles and wine types, there has been a great investment in research and development. Due to this, a full range of these products in countless sizes and types is offered to the major international markets.
When was cork first used to seal a bottle?
Even though the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans had already used cork to cover their amphorae, it was only when Dom Pérignon, in the early 1600s, decided to swap the wooden stoppers for cork stoppers, that the wine industry was unprecedentedly changed. Unhappy with the solution used at the time, wood wrapped in hemp soaked in olive oil, that failed to provide an effective seal and were always popping out, the monk sought an alternative. The solution was cork.
The driving force of Dom Pérignon was the fuel that accelerated the use of cork and the subsequent fast growth of the wine industry. The Portuguese industry of Port Wine, had a burst in its development when, for the first time, wine was allowed to age in cylindrical bottles sealed with cork. Thus, the modern wine industry exists only thanks to the development of cork stoppers and wine bottles.
Why is cork the most fabulous material to keep your wine tasty? Why cork is still a show stopper? Why is cork used in wine bottles?
The sealing of the bottle, if continued over time, encourages wine to mature, that is, its noble aging by means of countless physical and chemical processes both amongst its components and between these and the substances making up the bottle's internal environment. This gradual evolution occurs in an environment with very low oxygen content, which is however both necessary and sufficient to make the wine evolve correctly.
Until today, the natural cork stopper is the only one able to provide this perfect balance by allowing the wine to evolve correctly and the highly appreciated bouquet to form.
Indispensable both for maturing wines and for quick consumption ones, the air-tightness against liquids, ensured by the cork stopper and its respective micro-permeability to oxygen ensures excellent conservation without interfering in the harmony of its components, thus conferring them a sign of quality.
Besides, only its natural material is able to adapt itself correctly to the bottleneck's internal irregularities, assuring a perfect closure even if the glass expands or contracts, which is something that can happen with a change in room temperature during delivery or storage. Accordingly, it's completely possible the total sealage for several decades. The better the wine storage conditions (suitable temperature, pressure, humidity and small thermal amplitudes) and the quality of the cork, the longer the sealage will work properly.
What types of cork stoppers are there?
Natural Cork Stopper
The top of the range product when talking about cork stoppers. It's production and qualities were already mentioned in this article.
Multi-piece Natural Cork Stoppers
Made from two or more pieces of natural cork glued together with proper food contact allowed glue. The cork with which these stoppers were made was not thick enough to manufacture natural cork stoppers out of one piece only. They have a higher densimetric characteristics but are not recommended for long maturation periods.
Colmated Cork Stoppers
The colmated cork stoppers are natural cork stoppers that have their pores (lenticels) filled uniquely with the powder of cork that results from the rectification of natural cork stoppers. These cork stoppers are manufactured in a wide range of shapes and in different sizes.
Champagne Cork Stoppers
Champagne stoppers, just as the name suggests, these stoppers are specially designed to seal champagne, sparkling wines or artificially carbonated sparkling wines. These stoppers can be considered as belonging to the technical cork stopper family, because they are produced from a body of agglomerated cork granulates, to which one, two or three selected natural cork disks are applied to one of the ends. Champagne stoppers have a larger diameter than normal stoppers, which is indispensable to sustain the high pressures in wine bottles containing gas.
Technical Cork Stoppers
These stoppers were designed for bottled wines to be consumed generally within 2 to 3 years. They consist of a very dense body of agglomerated cork with natural cork discs glued on either one or both ends.
Agglomerated Cork Stoppers
These stoppers are entirely manufactured from cork granulate made from byproducts arising from the production of natural cork stoppers. Cork agglomerate stoppers are an economical solution to ensure perfect sealing for a period, which should not generally exceed 12 months.
Capsulated Cork Stoppers
Natural or natural colmated cork stoppers on whose end a capsule is placed. This capsule can be made of PVC, wood, metal, glass, porcelain or other materials. The capsulated cork stopper is generally used in fortified wines or in spirits ready to be consumed when released into the market. It is highly practical for bars and consumers, because it allows easy reuse.
Is there a cork shortage?
There is no cork shortage what so ever. Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Morocco, Italy, Tunisia and France altogether have 2.2 million hectares of cork forest. Portugal alone, in its continental territory, has over 30% of the total and, of those, 72% are found in Alentejo.
Due to a series of reforestation programs the areas of montado have been increasing in the recent years. In Portugal and Spain over 130 thousand hectares were planted in the last 15 years which means that the quantity of raw material obtainable will increase in the next years.
If cork is the perfect bottle stopper, why is the industry using substitutes?
Mainly due to the cost. Producing an aluminum twist off or a plastic cork is much cheaper than using natural cork ones. However the companies using alternative bottle stoppers may use the TCA as an excuse.
What is TCA or "cork taint"? What is when wine is corked?
TCA or "cork taint", is the short word for the chemical compound 2,4,6-trichloroanisole. Cork taint refers to a wine fault characterized by a set of undesirable tastes or smells found in a wine bottle. Even though the cork is commonly considered "guilty", the truth is that there are several factors that can lead to this condition. It is due to this, wrong, idea that the cork stopper is the responsible for TCA that a wine that is tainted on opening is said to be "corked" or "corky". Unfortunately TCA affects wines regardless of its price or quality.
Is TCA a cork-only related taint?
The cork stoppers were accused of being responsible for the transmission of this mouldy taint due to the name cork tain or corkiness that was traditionally given to this unfortunate situation. The wine, the cork stopper or the external environment (or even a combination of the three) can be, however the ones to blame. The natural environment is filled with halogenated phenols due to their considerable use in herbicides, pesticides and sanitation materials. TCA or its precursors may be present in the wine before bottling and the cellar environment may help the contamination with haloanisoles, e.g. in wooden materials, as well as during transport and storage. Therefore, it is possible to find tainted wine in plastic packages or in bottles with non-cork stoppers. (Source: Facts about tainted wine and cork, Pereira 2006, Centro de Estudos Florestais, Instituto Superior de Agronomia, Universidade Técnica de Lisboa, Portugal)
Where do natural wine corks come from?
The probability that, the natural wine cork you unbottled the other day, came from Portugal is big. In 2004. Portugal exported something like 51,6 thousand tons of natural cork stoppers, which represented 52,5% of the total value of exports.
What if wine cork leaks?
Fluid expands as temperatures climbs but the solid bottle remains the same. When exposed to high temperatures wine may force his way through the sides of the cork. Of coarse the cork may have been cut to a diameter that was too small for that bottle's neck but even a perfectly machined cutt cork can permit the wine to pass by.
Therefore, next time this happens, don't be quick on judging the cork as the one to blame.
On the positive side, the leaking doesn't necessarily means that the wine is completely spoiled.
What if the cork breaks?
There are a few reasons why a cork might break when opening a bottle, and most of the time, it's not that big of a deal.
The cork may, or may not, have started off fragile or dry.
Older corks tend to be more fragile and some are just more pliable and absorbent than others. This is why it's a good idea to store wine lying on its side, in humid conditions, so that the cork remains moist avoiding, this way, that it gets too dry and fragile.
Another reason for the breaking rests on the hands of the opener. If he doesn't screw (or centered) the corkscrew in far enough, the cork can break because of the way the pressure was applied. Some corks are longer than the normal, and you just don't know when you have one of those.
The corkscrew itself may have some guilt in this case. Better choose a thin pointy one, the chances that it breaks the corks are smaller than with a thick, dull one.
If your cork breaks when you're opening a bottle, try to remove the remaining cork in another way. If everything else fails, just push the remaining cork inside the bottle, and decant or strain the wine.
To cork or not to cork?
To cork or not to cork is a book, written by George M. Taber, where he debates and talks about the most controversial topic in the world of wine: What is the best product to seal a bottle? Should it be cork, plastic, glass, a screwcap, or some other type of closure still to be invented? A book for the wine geeks or for the curious.
Why plastic instead of cork?
The current boom in the use of plastic as wine stoppers is being supported by several countries, being Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and some other countries from Latin America, in the lead. Unfortunately this tendency is growing in the international wine scene.
Many of the new producers, away from the world of cork culturally and geographically speaking, opted for a solution they considered more efficient and cheaper than the traditional cork stopper.
Also, the young white wines, produced in many of these zones, belong to the segment that best accepts the use of plastic in qualitative terms.
The unjust campaign against natural cork must also be taken into consideration. This campaign, carried out by the pressure groups with interests in the chemical sector, is threatening by divulging ideas such as the impact of cork in the product's final price, the greater efficiency of plastic in conserving the wine, the impossibility of adapting the production of cork to the growing demands of an expanding market or, imagine, the higher sustainability of the synthetic materials usage.
As you will see, none of these arguments survive an examination, even a superficial one.
Is it cheaper to use synthetic stoppers than natural cork ones? The answer is no. Screw tops or plastic stoppers don't reduce the price. The prices are practically identical between the cork stopper and its artificial counterparts. The metal screw tops, that are starting to proliferate on the bottle shops shelves, are actually more expensive.
Is plastic more efficient as a bottle stopper than cork? Certainly not. The cork stopper influences positively the evolution process that the wine undergoes after being bottled besides contributing practically in its instrumental aspect. A good wine doesn't remain unchanged inside the bottle.
There is a dynamic relationship between the wine and the cork. The cork contributes to the wine ripening as being an organic element, its molecular structure keeps being submitted to variations and changes that affect the wine flavor and its ability to produce different sensations in our palate.
Is there cork enough for all the world's bottles of wine? The answer is yes, but it requires further clarification. During the 90's, the difficulties in obtaining high quality cork, lead the wine-growing sector to start contemplating synthetic stoppers as a good alternative.
Before the strict rules that now apply to the harvesting and processing of cork, the trees were over-exploited and the cork wasn't duly treated thus resulting in a much less efficient cork stopper. It was during that period that the cork became wistfully famous among the fans of wine by the term TCA, or "cork taint".
Since then, cork industry has undergone several changes, investments, studies and developments and the reforestation programs that are taking place in Portugal and Spain will increase the amount of quality raw product. (Source: Faircompanies)
About the sustainability question... is it really necessary to explain?
When one compares cork stoppers with aluminium caps and plastic closures, it is notorious that the cork stoppers possess environmental advantages in all the various indicators examined.
When Antoine Lavoisier said "Nothing is lost... everything is transformed" he could have been talking about the cork industry as there are no losses in this industry. All waste derived from the cork stoppers production is used to make other usefull products. Even cork dust is used for electricity co-generation.
Even though Cork stoppers cannot be reused within the wine industry they are 100% recyclable as they can be ground up and used in the production of other agglomerated products.
The fact that no tree is cut during the harvest of cork makes it one of the most environmentally friendly raw material.
According to the Sustainable Forest Management definition by the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe (MCPFE) cork industry is truly sustainable:
“The stewardship and use of forests and forest lands in a way, and at a rate, that maintains their biodiversity, productivity, regeneration capacity, vitality and their potential to fulfil, now and in the future, relevant ecological, economic and social functions, at local, national, and global levels, and that does not cause damage to other ecosystems.”
The importance of choosing cork stoppers
Maybe there isn't that big a difference between a cork stopper and a screw cap or plastic stopper if you are evaluating only the flavor of the wine. Specially if you are talking about new wines.
However, in the modern days, choosing eco-friendly and sustainable products is urgent.
The death of the cork industry will mean, without a doubt, the death of the montados and of all its endemic species.
500 millions of Portuguese cork stoppers jumped on new years eve
The estimates are made by João Rui Ferreira, the president of APCOR, the Portuguese Association of cork, in an article of the newspaper i.
Of the about 10 billion champagne cork stoppers that are sold every year in the world, more than half comes from Portugal.
The biggest client of champagne cork stoppers is, naturally, France with about 32,5 millions, followed by Italy, with 27,2 millions.