The cork trees in Portugal offer more than just a "pop" at wine time. These natural phenomena underpin centuries of tradition along the Alentejo and Algarve. Here's why cork forests - or montados - matter - and why you should care.
The Cork Trees in Portugal
Cork. It's one of those words I love. Short, sweet and to the point, stirring up memories of springy toughness between finger and thumb amid wine-flowing evenings with friends.
Hiking and cycling through the crumbling, rocky Alentejo Coast or sunshine-filled Algarve, you'll see plenty of cork trees.
And not enough at all. Here's the deal.
The Amazing Cork Tree
The mighty cork oak is an impressive thing to behold. A single tree can live for over 500 years and provide sustainable livelihoods for communities around it.
The spongy stuff lives on the outside and can be stripped away and sold but only every ten years, by law, and for good reason. The forests we walk through show rusty-red trunks with white painted numbers: that's so farmers know when to come back and not before.
What's the proper name for a cork tree?
The evergreen cork oak has the delicious official name of Quercus suber.
Portugal produces half the world's cork, and is responsible for around 70% of the trade. Around 28% of the forests in Portugal comprise of cork, which is around 8% of the area of the country. Beyond wine bottle corks, you'll also find cork as flooring tiles and inside cricket balls.
The cork oaks are native to southwest Europe and northwest Africa, enjoying the dry summers tempered by humidity, reasonable rainfall and mild winters. The sunshine helps (doesn't it always?) as does the moist and siliceous soils.
But beyond simply being "a tree," cork oaks support diverse ecosystems and as a result are heavily regulated in Portugal.
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The World's Largest Cork Tree
Yes, that's right, the world's largest cork tree lives in the Alentejo region. The Whistler, named for the countless songbirds in its dense canopy, is over 230 years old and responsible for more than 100 000 wine bottle stoppers.
Cork Harvests and Production
Cork harvests take place between mid May and August and a tree must be at least 38 years old before the cork is a high enough grade to be used as a wine stopper. Ratios are regulated by law and the average tree will be harvested around 15 times during its lifetime.
From the forests, farmers transport the cork to production plants where the bark sits beneath concrete presses for around six months or so. It's then sterilised by boiling and graded for future use.
High grade cork, assessed visually by experts, heads into the wine industry. The rest to flooring, business materials and fashion.
WHERE IS THE ALENTEJO COAST?
The Alentejo Coast stretches along a short, sturdy part of the coast of Western Europe in Portugal. It's north of the more famous Algarve, with its sand and parasol beaches, white-washed towns and high rise, popular tourist resorts.
Across Europe, cork production tops 300 000 tonnes annually in an industry worth 1.5 billion euros, involving 30 000 workers. Only 15% of harvested cork heads to the wine stoppers but that is responsible for two thirds of revenue.
Portugal, as the industry leader, has over 500 factories employing 20 000 workers.
Working the earth, farming cork has been an environmentally and economically stable profession for centuries.
Even a 2006 World Wildlife Fund report highlighted the importance of the montados, while also issuing a warning: that a valuable habitat for migratory birds and endangered species was under threat.
So what went wrong?
So what went wrong? The Cork Taint Scandal
It's a complex situation but simply put, one way that wine can go bad is through "cork taint." The term applies to wine with "undesirable smells" on opening and largely results from compounds TBA and TCA, byproducts of chlorinating fungi. It's harmless but unpalatable. And since the point of drinking wine is for pleasure, it's a problem.
Several factors can cause the "taint," such as the barrels, transport and storage procedures, but it's usually the cork that takes the blame.
With big business on the side of the synthetic screw top alternatives and big business on the side of the cork industry, the simple becomes complicated, the debate heated.
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With A Vanishing Market, What do Cork Harvesters Do?
Beyond the rust-red, gnarling trunk of the cork oak, another tree reaches to the sky. The elegant, silver-leafed eucalyptus stretches into the sunshine as the farming alternative to a failing cork industry.
Eucalyptus forests turn a profit after only a decade, but as with everything in life, it seems there's a price to pay for speed.
They may grow fast, but eucalyptus forests burn faster than cork, and already Portugal has suffered the wrath of several forest fires.
And while the cork scandal blazed, customers grew accustomed to screw-top bottles of wine. Once considered a crime against good taste, they're now part of everyday life, for all their more questionable eco credentials.
Fighting to Save the Cork Oaks
Local cork enthusiasts, like Frank McClintock who runs the Quinta do Barranco da Estrada, are fighting the battle on two fronts.
First, they want the story to be told. And, second, and perhaps more practically, they're looking for ways to teach an old cork new tricks.
Cork mats, cork frames, cork utensils. There's even now a fashion line of cork designer bags.
The Importance of Ecotourism
If the market for cork products fails, there is another approach. To encourage ecotourism to those who appreciate the cork oak forests for hiking and cycling, to bring money into the community and preserve the ecosystem that way.
A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in - Greek proverb
Back on the path that threads between pine trees, the soft sand, springy grass and fields and fields of flowers, it is the cork trees that linger in my mind the most: with the thought that many of them have stood here for hundreds and hundreds of years.
The cork trees in Portugal are beautiful to behold. But they also serve a purpose.
The question becomes: what can we do to help?
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