Cork Comes Back as Stopper of Choice

Treehugger, September 2, 2011

It's back! The humble cork, which had been replaced by screw tops in wine bottles around the world, is making a major come-back. And it's all due to the wine snobs.

Traditional cork-makers are over the moon, as is the whole Portuguese cork industry, that this natural and environmental material is having a revival.

Snobbery is one of the big reasons. Research has shown that wine drinkers assume that wines with natural cork stoppers are better. And they are willing to pay more for them. Corks suffered a set back in the 1990's because there was a sense that wines with cork stoppers were going "off" and being contaminated. That's despite the fact that wine has been sealed with corks for almost 400 years. So winemakers started replacing them with screw tops. So much so that Robert Parker, the world's most influential wine critic, predicted that all bottles would be sealed with screw tops.

There are few environmental benefits to screw caps since they are not biodegradable. But they are cheaper than cork.

But he was wrong (gasp!). In fact, the tide has turned and sales of wine corks are rising whilst fake corks are falling out of favour. Sales of wine corks have increased dramatically compared with screw caps and synthetic corks. Now seventy per cent of winemakers have chosen cork over screw-caps or plastic wine stoppers. A huge French supermarket chain has recently announced a move back to traditional corks for their in-house brand, as has Sainsbury's in the UK. The world's biggest producer of natural wine corks is in Portugal and last year sold 3.2 billion of them.

Wine corks are made from the bark of the cork oak which is an evergreen tree found mainly in Portugal. It supplies half of the world's cork, with Spain and North Africa. The trees have to be 40 years old before they are ready to produce a good stopper, but then they can continue doing so for up to two centuries. Portugal's cork forests are home to many endangered species such as the Iberian lynx, the Barbary deer and the imperial Iberian eagle. The revival of the forests has been key to their survival.

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