There is nothing quite like the sound of a cork being eased slowly out of a bottle of wine and that satisfying pop; the whole ritual adds to the anticipation of an evening relaxing with friends and putting the world to rights.
Why cork ? Cork has been used as a bottle closure since the 18th century when the Frenchman Dom Perignon found it worked better on his champagne bottles than wooden pegs wrapped in oily rags. Cork is flexible and can be squeezed into the neck of a bottle forming a tight seal. Pores or lenticels through the cork allow a tiny amount of air through, important for the ageing process of wines.
What is cork ? Cork is taken the bark of the cork oak (or sobreiro in Portuguese). These trees have to be 25 years old before the first cork can be peeled away and then they are harvested every 9 years or so- Lots of patience needed ! The bark is stripped off, boiled, rolled flat and punched to produce cork for bottle closures (or floor tiles, shoes, handbags, purses and even postcards !)
Portugal produces a lot of cork and about half the world’s natural cork forests (Montado) can be found in Algarve and Alentejo. Take a drive along the endless straight roads of Alentejo under the huge blue skies and it won’t be long before you find yourself driving through groves of cork trees with cattle, sheep and Iberian pigs grazing in the meadows and wildflowers beneath. The cork trees that have been cut have the reddish bark below exposed and numbers painted on them to display when they were last harvested. These cork forests are very important for biodiversity and are home to lots of endangered species like Imperial eagles and Iberian Lynx. They also help keep local economies afloat in these rural far flung parts of Portugal.
In recent years cork has had some bad press due to cork taint, a mouldy wet cardboard smell when the bottle is opened. This led to the rise of screw caps and plastic corks and the cork industry reacted by investing in improvements in the whole production process and the risk of a ‘corked’ bottle of wine is now less. The subject of bottle closures is still quite contentious and the different camps have their vocal supporters !