Stick a cork in it

Synthetic plugs and aluminum screw tops may spell the end for Portugal’s cork-oak forests

POURIN’ AWAY <br>Keely Coy pours a glass of wine at Monks Wine Bar &amp; Bistro. She says she finds cork taint in about one bottle out of every three cases.

Keely Coy pours a glass of wine at Monks Wine Bar & Bistro. She says she finds cork taint in about one bottle out of every three cases.

Photo By meredith j. cooper

Quality query? For more information on wine-cork production, visit the Cork Quality Council at

Grape variety, place of origin and price. These are likely the main factors that determine which wine bottle lands in your shopping basket, but perhaps you should consider one more thing: the bottle’s cork, or the lack thereof.

That’s because the wine industry’s rapid shift toward alternative means of bottle closure—like screw caps and synthetic plugs—has cast a cloud over the cork forests of Mediterranean Europe and North Africa.

There, the picturesque cork oak (Quercus Suber) has been an integral part of the landscape and of the winemaking industry for centuries, but times are changing. While the stately trees still grow across some 5 million acres of arid countryside, the forests could become commercially obsolete within a decade, according to a 2006 report by World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Worse, the wine industry’s trend toward plastic and aluminum puts cork forests at risk of neglect, disease and fire.

Clearly, plastic and aluminum are shaping up to take over the market. Industry eyeballers report that natural corks still plug 70 percent of wine bottles globally, but WWF has predicted that by 2015 natural corks might seal as few as 5 percent of all wine bottles.

The socioeconomic effects will be felt most intensely in Portugal, where WWF launched its Cork Oak Landscapes Program in 2005. Portugal produces 55 percent of the world’s corks and employs more than 100,000 people, directly and indirectly, in the cork industry.

The forests, which grow in relatively wild and remote regions of the south, make ideal habitat for a variety of wildlife, and such creatures as Iberian lynx, Barbary deer, as well as several raptor species could suffer if the forests are allowed to go by the wayside.

Cork trees also provide a natural barrier against desertification, already a problem in arid Mediterranean countries and expected to grow worse with global warming and the simultaneous loss of protective vegetation, like cork trees.

NEW TREND <br /> Creekside Cellars’ Brenda McLaughlin shows off a bottle with a screw cap, a container that’s become more popular of late.

CN&amp;r file photo

In fact, experts predict desertification could accelerate to a south-to-north speed of one kilometer per year in southern Portugal. On the other hand, by protecting and even expanding Portugal’s cork forests, which currently total about a third of the world’s acreage, desertification could be halted by 2020, according to WWF.

Angela Morgado, director of fundraising for WWF in Lisbon, says the organization has pleaded with the wine industry to support the cork economy and, in turn, help preserve the Mediterranean’s cork oaks.

The wine industry, however, is not entirely convinced. Though cork stoppers have been the primary means of stopping wine bottles since the 1700s, synthetic stoppers and screw caps are cheaper. These products also preclude all risk of cork taint, a musty condition caused by any of six compounds that can develop in improperly sterilized corks. Cork taint is detectable by even amateur wine tasters and can make an infected wine virtually undrinkable, though the condition is relatively uncommon.

At Monks Wine Lounge and Bistro in downtown Chico, co-owner Keely Coy finds about one tainted bottle per three cases purchased. South American wines seem to be infected most frequently. At Creekside Cellars, owner Brenda McLaughlin encounters cork taint just as seldom as ever.

Yet cork taint has always been a concern, and in 1994 eight major American cork distributors banded together to found the Cork Quality Council, based in Forestville in Sonoma County. The organization has since implemented stringent industry standards in sterilizing and handling corks, and today, roughly 80 percent of the corks used to stop American wine bottles pass the inspection of the Cork Quality Council.

Peter Webber, director of the council, estimates that cork-taint frequency has declined and now occurs in less than 1 percent of American wines. Moreover, says Webber, corks provide a tighter seal than synthetic stoppers while adding a pleasant roundness of flavor to a bottled wine.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which guards forests worldwide from abuse, has partnered with WWF to launch its own campaign for improved cork quality. By stamping all properly harvested and sterilized corks with an FSC seal of approval, winemakers and consumers could be better assured of an untainted wine while lending support to a sustainable future for the cork trade. Morgado says the program is still in its developing stages.

Coy at Monks saw a huge upsurge in cork alternatives about six months ago, and today 30 percent to 40 percent of her lower-end wines are stopped with an alternative product. Even high-end wineries, she says, are slowly shifting to synthetic and glass stoppers.

The cork oak, however, is not in any immediate danger of going extinct; the trees cannot be cut down, and many makers of high-end sparkling wine will always tend toward natural corks for their bottles. But if the need for the bark diminishes at the rate it is now, the forests could suffer neglect and disease. Cork makers will go jobless and southern Portugal be blown over with sand.