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. Here, 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 five 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.
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, too, and such creatures as Iberian lynx, Barbary deer, and several raptors could suffer if the forests are allowed to go by the wayside. The trees cannot be cut down, but activists worry that neglect by property owners could lead to death of the trees.
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. 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 in cork-producing areas 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 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 even by amateur wine tasters and can make an infected wine virtually undrinkable, though the condition is relatively uncommon.
Cork taint is often reported to affect as many as 10 in every 100 bottles of wine, though that figure may be exaggerated. Peter Webber, director of the Cork Quality Council, based in Forestville, says tainted corks are quite rare. The Council was founded in 1994, when eight major American cork distributors banded together to implement stringent industry standards in sterilizing and handling corks. Today, roughly 80 percent of the corks used to stop American wine bottles have passed the inspection of the Cork Quality Council. Webber estimates that cork taint now occurs in less than one 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.
Yet 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 occur in as few as five percent of all wine bottles. As dramatic as the trend sounds, the cork oak is not in any immediate danger of going extinct; the trees are protected, and makers of high-end Porto, sparkling wines and red wines meant for long-term aging may always tend toward natural corks for their bottles.
The rest of us might not really care — though perhaps we should, lest cork-makers go jobless, wild animals vanish and Portugal become desert.