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Cork (Dis)Closures

The act of opening, and possibly decanting, a wine allows plenty of time for sommeliers to chat with their customers about the wine’s provenance. But perhaps a few words about the bottle’s cork closures should also be included. Many consumers have little knowledge about where corks come from, and some of the information they may have is actually incorrect.

I was in Portugal last week to visit cork forests – which I had briefly seen before – as well as to examine how cork is cured, how dozens of steps are taken to make modern corks virtually TCA free and how the final products, including whole corks, composite corks and cork disks, are made.

Here are 7 cork (dis)closure stories that you can tell customers or use to impress your drinking buddies:

A typical cork oak tree can easily grow to be a 100 years old or more. Some people mistakenly think you have to cut down a cork oak tree – technically a Quercus suber – to harvest its cork bark. Extremely untrue. Instead, the bark is stripped from a portion of a tree, and the tree continues to grow.  In a few years, new bark from the same tree can be harvested a second time. Then again later.

Before a cork is allowed to touch wine, it is likely to be about 25 years old – minimum. Depending on the size of the tree, the first harvest of cork takes place at about 25 years. Often, this first harvest doesn’t provide the best whole corks, so cork producers wait an additional 8-9 years before a second harvest produces perfect whole cork closures.

Sometimes people can’t see the cork trees for the forest. In a cork forest, cork trees are not densely planted, and other trees and shrubs are allowed to flourish. As a result, cork forests are among the world’s most bio-diverse natural environments, supporting more than 37 species of mammals, 160 of birds and 24 of reptiles and amphibians. The forests are also estimated to retain 14 million tons of CO2 annually.

What could be more natural than cork? If using naturally grown products that are sustainable is a key part of a consumer’s philosophy, then it’s hard not to choose wines with cork closures.

• Most fine wines are aged in oak barrels. Corks are made from the bark of oak trees. Coincidence? Perhaps; but perhaps this is just nature’s most masterful wine pairing.

Cork actually breathes oxygen into wine.  A cork closure contains millions of cells filled with gases, mainly oxygen compounds. When the cork is compressed as it is being inserted into a bottle, these compressed cells gush out micro-doses of oxygen into the wine to aid in its graceful aging.

A single oak tree gives birth to scores of corks – and multiple times. Each time bark is harvested from a tree, it provides materials for many whole corks and additional material for ground-cork stoppers. And a new harvest can take place every 8-9 years until the tree reaches an age of even 200 years.

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