The cork wine stopper is synonymous with preservation – not only of the wine in the bottle, but of a way of life for cork farmers and the natural ecosystem of the forest. The process has been the same for generations, because the system is a sustainable network benefiting the local economy, the environment and the industries that utilize cork – particularly the wine industry.
Cork grows naturally in only two areas of the world: the Mediterranean region of Europe – particularly the Iberian Peninsula, where Portugal and Spain produce more than 80% of the world’s cork – and,Northwest Africa.
Los Alcornocales Natural Park – a name that literally means “the cork oak grove” – is the largest mass of cork oak on the Iberian Peninsula, and the cork woodlands are home to rich biodiversity including endangered species such as the Iberian lynx, Iberian imperial eagle and other rare birds. A stunning array of ferns, fungi, and other plants call these forests home alongside the cork oak trees, which can grow to more than 65 feet tall and provide shelter for the creatures that thrive here.
For most forest ecosystems, the word “harvest” signals threat. But a cork harvest isn’t typical of forestry, because the tree itself isn’t cut down. In fact, there is no harm to the tree thanks to the cork oak’s unique ability to regenerate outer bark (the layer we know as cork) and the mastery of the farmers. There’s no deforestation, no heavy machines and no industrial complex – rather a sustainable way of the life that retains nature’s bounty.
Every summer from May to August, teams of agriculturalists called extractors – skilled workers with years of experience and a generational connection to the forest – set out with their simple tool, a locally-made, frighteningly sharp ax.
The extractor makes a horizontal slice and several vertical slices in an instinctive way. A precise depth is required to pull the bark safely from the cambium, a membrane of cells just under the bark. As the cuts are made, the cork is drawn away in great sheet planks, revealing the stunning red tree underneath. The planks are taken out of the forest by truck, by hand, or even by mule if necessary, on their way to the cork processing facility.
Trees yielding cork for wine stoppers must be at least 40 years old for their virgin harvest. “A tree can be stripped of its cork once every nine to 12 years without causing damage to the tree, Rainforest Alliance states. “A single cork oak, which lives up to 200 years, can be harvested over 16 times.”
Extractors daub the next harvest date onto each tree after their job is complete. The cork grows from within, maintaining the visibility of the number and allowing extractors to determine when they should cut next.
Extracting is a well-paying job in an industry that’s been supporting the local economy for centuries. “In the seven cork-producing countries of the Mediterranean, more than 100,000 people directly or indirectly depend on this sector,” according to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF). Because this process can’t be rushed, young farmers and forests mature simultaneously – allowing the next generation to learn from experienced elders.
“It is precisely the populations with the lowest level of income per capita that are favored by the economic activity” of cork oak forestry, shares Juan Manuel Fornell Fernández, conservative director of Los Alcornocales.
According to the WWF, each tree can produce enough material for 4,000 wine corks.
Recaredo, a world-class cava producer in Catalonia is a champion for using local cork in wine bottles. “The cork industry helps keep people in the natural environment of the dehesas [the low-intensity Spanish farming system where corks grow, called montados in Portugal] in their region by generating enough value across the production chain to support them,” said Ton Mata, Enologist and Member of the Recaredo family. “This allows people to live in a great natural setting in perfect balance, in a sustainable relationship with the environment.”
If this sounds like something to see, interested travelers have the opportunity to experience the harvest – along with the region’s food, wine, and culture – firsthand on Cork Forest Conservation Alliance’s eco-tour called From Bark to Bottle.
What to do with a cork stopper after that bottle of wine is gone? Recycle it. “From 2009, 380 million cork stoppers have been recycled worldwide,” according to Corticeira Amorim, the largest world producer of cork products. “These stoppers turn into materials for houses, into shoes, into coatings, into insulating acoustic…they never turn again into another stopper of wine.”