Save a Tree, Use Real Cork

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ESTREMOZ, Portugal— I had always thought plastic wine corks and screw caps were tacky, but now I have a good reason for avoiding them.

Buying wine with real corks helps preserve the cork forests of Portugal and the wider western Mediterranean, which are, it turns out, ecological marvels. I write about the discovery, on a recent trip to Portugal, in my latest Green column.

Cork oaks and their scrubby cousins, holm oaks, are well adapted to the hot dry summers of the region. They help prevent these places from turning into deserts. Their stands are rich in plants and — when the farmers restrain themselves from shooting everything in sight — animals, especially birds.

What’s unique about cork is that the thick bark can be harvested from the trees without cutting them down. A skilled crew hacks the bark off with axes. If done right, it grows back. You can see the process in this introduction to cork forests by Luisa Nunes and Carlos Reis:

So the cork oaks form the basis of a sustainable industry that has existed for centuries. The cork is harvested every summer for wine stoppers and other uses. The trees don’t need fertilizer. They are hard not to love.

Synthetic corks are the enemy of this ecologist’s heaven. They have slashed the world market share of real cork by perhaps 20 percent in the last decade, according to Wine Intelligence, a London research concern. That has brought down prices, reducing incentives to grow and maintain cork groves.

One needs a lot of patience and dedication to grow cork. The trees can only be harvested every decade or so and require years—some people say up to 50—from the time they are originally planted to when they can be first harvested. You are doing it for your grandchildren or for the ecosystem, and that is not always an easy sell in the 21st century.

Fortunately, cork trees are protected in Portugal, the leading producer.



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