We’ve all heard it the fulfilling pop as the cork comes out of the bottle. It’s beautiful and the sound holds a rich cultural history. However, more often that pop is being replaced by the sound of metal on metal as we unscrew the caps that are replacing the traditional corks on wine bottles. I won’t lie, the convenience of screw-caps has enticed me more than once (of course only when I lived abroad where I was of legal drinking age). When one finds themselves without a corkscrew they turn to the internet where the amount of creative ways to uncork a bottle of wine without a corkscrew are endless, just as most of them are endlessly frustrating. Still, none of us can deny the class we feel after opening a corked bottle. So the question is, which should you be (legally) buying, the corked wine, or the screw-cap wine?
As per usual, the first and most important thing we need to consider when making any decision is which choice is better for the environment? To answer that question, one must first understand just what cork is and be familiar with the process of harvesting it.
Cork is made of the inner bark of an oak tree native to the Western Mediterranean Region, appropriately named the Cork Oak. Let me just tell you, these trees are absolutely AMAZING. Please, indulge in some little known cork facts:
- Cork is formed in a honeycomb structure, composed of cells that consist of fourteen sides!
- Cork is 1/4th the density of water
- Cork can be crushed under 14,000 pounds of pressure and regain 90% of the original size within 24 hours!
- Cork is a flame retardant, making the trees the first in an ecosystem to rejuvenate after a fire
- The root system of cork oaks regulates water in soil in semi-arid landscapes which anchors the soil, enabling a prosperous ecosystem.
- Cork Oaks can grow to be nearly 65 feet tall and have a lifespan of 150-200 years!
- Cork is 100% sustainable and renewable material!
- Cork has been used in cleaning up of oil spills
- Cork Oak support the highest levels of forest biodiversity, rainforests not included
- Cork Oak forests function as a huge carbon sink, sequestering at least 10mm tons of CO2 every year
Are you in awe yet?
So this is the process: once a Cork Oak has reached 20 years of age, they are ready for their first harvest. There are only three months out of the year that the cork can be harvested; all efforts one hundred percent man powered. The axe-men strip the first layer of bark and proceed to gingerly pull the cork away in large pieces. The process is over 150 years old and hasn’t changed since the first time it was done. Rest easy knowing this process does not kill the tree; the resilient tree is given nine years before being harvested once more, and the process continues until the lifespan has come to its end.
So, why the sudden switch to synthetic cork and the plastic screw-caps? After all, the cork was discovered to absorb neither dust nor moisture, making it the perfect substance to stop a bottle of wine, allowing it to age. However, more often than not today, wine isn’t made to age, but be consumed relatively quickly, making producers more inclined to invest in screw-caps. Not to mention, it’s heavily based off of consumer demand, the screw-capped wine being bought much more frequently. Customers say it’s nice to avoid the hassle of using a cork screw. Companies such as Tesco have already switched over 40% of their products to screw caps. So, what does this transition away from traditional corks mean for the future of ecosystems which depend upon the cork oak?
You might think this is good news for the Cork Forests, unfortunately that’s not the case. The issue is the 250 remaining cork forests are only being replanted and maintained due to consumer demand for corks. As the demand further decreases we are seeing many of the farmers replacing the Cork Oaks with Eucalyptus trees, which also grow in dry soil and take only months to be ready for harvesting for the paper and pulp market. As the trees disappear so do the ecosystems rich in biodiversity that they supported. Endangered species such as the Iberian Lynx, who depend on these ecosystems, are now facing imminent extinction; this area being the last place they exist on the planet.
Remember next time you drink corked wine, you’ll be classier, cultured, sustaining an ancient tradition and most importantly you’ll be supporting the cultivation of one of the world’s most important disappearing ecosystems. So do yourself and the world a favor, put a cork in it!