The impact cork has had on the wine world
Cork trees are to Portugal what Amarula trees are to Africa. They both grow wild, create numerous job opportunities and one can hardly imagine a world without them.
The argument as to which wine closure is the best becomes futile if the consumer doesn’t know where cork comes from and why after centuries natural corks need to compete with viable, alternative closures. In my opinion synthetic (plastic) corks don’t have the integrity to protect a wine over a long period with excessive air permeability that can lead to oxidation. However, traditional ‘natural’ corks, screwcaps and technical corks all have its place – depending on your product, intention and market. Also read more about the Helix-concept (www.helixconcept.com) – a cork designed as a “screwcap” that needs a twist instead of a corkscrew. Discerning wine consumers should be encouraged to understand the difference between closures, some being more sustainable and romantic while others can guarantee uniformity and a wine safe from technical faults. Ultimately, wine needs a closure that will allow it to breathe with a natural evolution that contributes to its character without the closure imparting any foreign aromas.
Benguela Cove uses screwcap as well as Diam that manufactures 1.5 billion technical cork closures each year. These technical corks were patented in 2003 and follow the DIAMANT process that allows them to extract volatile components. It can eradicate the molecules responsible for what is commonly referred to as “cork taint.” In 2016 they launched Origine by DIAM, a closure that integrates a beeswax emulsion as a binding agent composed of 100% plant derived polyols. Visit www.diam-closures.com to learn more about this intense and delicate process.
I have journeyed to Portugal on many occasions, if not for their characterful wines and excellent seafood, a getaway with friends and family, with the privilege to have visited Amorim – a leading producer of natural cork for more than 150 years. They sell close to 4 billion corks annually all over the world of which approximately 175 million corks are recycled every year and about a 100 000 jobs are created during harvest time.
Cork is harvested from the Quercus Suber tree that covers approximately 2,7 million hectares worldwide, most commonly found in the south of Portugal. Unlike other trees that would’ve died in this process, the cork tree has two protective cambiums, making it possible to harvest the outer layer without damaging the tree. These trees are the livelihood of many families and therefore treated with the utmost respect. It is illegal to cut down a cork tree. It takes 25 years for a cork tree to fully develop its second cambium and it needs to be removed with great skill. The tree then needs to rest for nine years before its bark can be harvested again. The raw cork then needs to be seasoned for up to a year before being processed. A single tree can be harvested 400 times in its lifetime and more than 5 generations will make a living off the same tree.
I had the privilege to visit the Amorim factory with a guided tour of the facilities – from where the bark is sorted and seasoned, steamed, evaluated, scanned and graded. Every single cork is punched out by positioning the slab by hand and stepping on a foot paddle to punch it through. It almost looks like Scrooge McDuck’s gold vault, only massive heaps of cork being the gold of this wine world.
The next time you pop that cork on your favourite wine, do so with a little finesse, because there it so much more than what meets the eye. Every wine consumer needs to understand the journey that the cork had to travel from bark to bottle – be it a technical or a natural cork. In fact, this journey is so vast that the cork is granted a second life as a shoe, handbag, chair or even a surfboard. Naturally the Portuguese explorers lined their ships with this waterproof fabric and no space craft will leave the earth without using cork as the main insolation fabric. It has also been donned the title of vegan’s leather, gracing international catwalks with jackets and dresses made from cork.
The monk Dom Perignon proclaimed this as the wine bottle closure of choice in the late 1600’s which launched a new era for cork in the agricultural sector.
Pros and cons of natural cork
This impermeable material consists of millions of tightly packed cells. These cells are filled with gas, it is elastic and compressible. It can resist the penetration of fluids for decades and still retains its shape. Being a natural substance, it is also flawed by nature and therefore vulnerable to spoilage. When people refer to a corked wine it’s got nothing to do with little pieces of cork floating in the wine. Unfortunately, the cork world had to make peace with a chemical compound called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, TCA for short, that is naturally present in the bark. TCA can strip a wine of all natural flavours and leave the best of wines with an unpleasant, musty aroma. This occur when chlorine phenols reacts with microscopic fungi. These fungi live in tiny openings that run through the bark and are noticeable in quantities as small as five parts per billion. This is why it is etiquette for a waiter to pour you a taster in a restaurant or why the host of a party should taste the first wine to make sure it is free from a sensorial fault.
The value chain form production to distribution is so tightly governed that it seems almost impossible for this bugger to slip through. Intensive research has been done to eliminate TCA. Modern preventative techniques include a controlled steam distilling process to remove TCA from the cork cells, laser scans are being utilised and the final product undergoes intensive sensory tests to remove any contaminated cork. Methods of late can now also guarantee a TCA free cork but this is a very costly exercise if you need to keep your wine at a consumer friendly price. Read more about NDtech (www.amorimcork.com) - an individual quality control screening technology introduced by Amorim to eradicate detectable TCA.
Cork, in which ever shape, remains an excellent and sustainable choice as a wine closure, especially to the purists. Albeit screwcaps has also gained a sturdy reputation as a reliable closure, premium wines included, there are simply no guarantees in life.
Samarie Smith - Brand Business Manager
Benguela Cove Wines | Benguela Collection