Once you draw a cork out of its wine bottle soul mate and hear that signature squeak, anticipation immediately builds for the liquid ambrosia within. The lion’s share of the attention is typically given to the grape elixir that makes everything from truffles to pizza, pasta and — heck, probably even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich — reach sublime heights of deliciousness, but it’s high time that the handy-dandy sustainable sealing device receives its own time in the spotlight.
Perfectly practical, fully biodegradable and wholly renewable, the humble wine cork leads quite a jet-setting life from cradle to recycling container and back again. The raw material itself hails from European and North African deciduous evergreen oaks known as Quercus Suber which have an average life span of between 150 – 200 years. In particular, trees in Portugal’s Montados forests – which produce 70% of the global demand for cork — are so revered that a 1209 law charging offenders heavy financial penalties for failing to respect sustainable harvesting techniques is still in place.
Every 9-10 years (exclusively during the summer), farmers wielding hand axes carefully strip cork bark away from trunks and large branches in one sheet, ultimately yielding roughly 4,000 wine stoppers per oak along with scraps that are recycled into fashion accessories, household décor, shoe insoles, motor gaskets and various types of construction materials. Following the process, they make a point of recording the date directly on the tree and allowing the cork material to regenerate throughout the next decade before repeating the hand-stripping once again. This seemingly radical process – which is carried out 17 times per typical cork tree – doesn’t compromise its health or survival rate (unlike other species).
The cork industry continues to employ one of the world’s lowest-impact farming techniques and also happens to foster abundant wildlife habit for an impressive array of species. Not surprisingly, the eco-benefits, such as the fact that cork forests sequester millions of tons of atmospheric greenhouse gases annually, are paramount among the cork industry’s promotional concerns.
Following the 36th Annual Sonoma County Harvest Fair (otherwise known as the “Oscars” for California vintners), 100% Cork — an organization that touts the naturally beneficial qualities of genuine cork stoppers rather than synthetic alternatives – noted that a sizable 92% of the winning varieties sported cork closures. They’re hoping that this trend continues an upward trajectory by encouraging supporters of planet-friendly industries to take the cork pledge and spread the word to friends and family.
In addition to making a conscious effort to select wine sealed with cork stoppers, eco-responsible consumers can also participate in a number of recycling programs such as those offered through Cork ReHarvest, Korks4Kids, Yemm & Hart and ReCork or transform their collected corks into infinite types of crafts and décor items. Sounds like a good reason to pop a cork today!