Iberia's Amazing Cork Tree
Nature's Sustainable Product from Spain and Portugal Uncork a Bottle today and help the Cork industry!
If you cycle around southern Portugal, it won't amaze you to learn that Portugal supplies the world with over 60% of its cork there are that many cork trees! The type of oak tree you see, the evergreen cork oak - Quercus suber (growing and excelling in sandy poor soil and hugging the coast of western Europe and northern Africa) is what they use to make everything from wine corks, flooring, hot plates and even clothes! Traditionally in the Alentejo region over the Tagus river next to the capital Lisbon, people kept food items prior to refrigeration, insulated from the hot sun with decorated cork containers for food.
No harm is done to the trees and they are not cut down in order to remove this fantastic buoyant and water resistant bark. The process itself is labour intensive however, and the stripping of the trees takes place in the summer every 10 years. However, first the trees must mature for at least 25 years before the bark is removed and once it starts producing, can do so for up to 200 years!
Removal of the cork is done in the summer due to this being the growing season of the tree and thus it undergoes a vast growth spurt then on. At this time the bark is carefully split from the tree. In actual fact this helps the tree remain healthy. A completely renewable harvest, you can congratulate yourself every time you uncork a bottle that you are helping this industry that serves to carry on the traditional lifestyle of the cork farmer. A very delicate manoeuvre, farmers still use fairly rudimentary tools (a sharp axe) as no highly mechanised machine has been developed to strip the bark as well or as carefully. Everywhere through the fields and forests, the white washed numbers on each trunk stands out as you go by. The numbers you see painted on the trunks are the last year they were harvested in order to keep track.
Interestingly enough there are different years of growth that are better for some products than others - for example the cellular structure in a tree stripped of its bark in its 2nd harvest (so take in mind the tree is already 45 years old) is better used for things like flooring or bulletin boards where as the cork from the 3rd harvest and onward is the best to be used for wine corks and from then on, for the next odd 150 years can be used for this. To make a cork they boil these curving slabs of cork and then compress them, flattening them so they can punch out a cork.
Harvested since Roman times, it is now under threat by introduced tree species like the Eucalyptus and the plastic cork contingent. Interestingly enough it was the famed 17th century French monk Dom Perignon who revived the use of the cork seal for bottles due to its complete lack of smell and taste (prior to this they were using oily rags). However, these days, tastes are more discerning and cork producers are being urged to improve their product (an organic chemical component/fungi in the cork can "cork" (ruin/taint) a wine if it comes into contact with any chlorine at all. Wineries face losing the battle in the industry to its plastic brother or even .. gasp, the screw cap. A 3-5% rate of corks corking wine is unacceptable and some believe it could even be up at 10%. Many wineries have gone to great lengths to prevent this compound from developing and the banning of chlorine cleaning products helps in that battle. However, on the other side there are believers that it is the minute traces of oxygen that corks let in which makes the wine and the 100% seal that plastics have can also cause a reaction).
Although who can really replace that satisfying “thuuck” sound of pulling a cork out of the bottle – or having a distinguished sommelier bringing to your table an expensive bottle and twisting off the cap certainly looses that something wonderful and exciting the humble cork brings!
See a real cork tree on our Amazing Alentejo bike tour, Blue Coasts – Self Guided cycle route and our Olive Trails Andalucia guided bike tour in Southern Spain!