There is a recent movement away from using traditional cork closures due to some inaccurate and bad press. In investigating the cork for this blog and for the Spaz on Wine, Uncorked Podcast, I was delighted to find that there are many reasons, all good, to buy wines with natural cork stoppers. The history, romance, and earth saving qualities of the natural cork is captivating. Read on, my friend!
History of the Wine Cork
Even though the natural cork is under hot debate right now, the cork as a stopper may date back as far as the ancient Egyptians. Modern legend often attributes its promotion to Dom Perignon, the famous 17th century French monk. Wine myth contends that he may have popularized the use of cork stoppers over the more commonly used wooden plugs. Four hundred years later and the cork continues to be a topic of discussion. The good news is the wooden plug is out, but the concern now is that screw caps and plastic stoppers are gobbling up market share in the world of wine closures (Gifford, 2016). These competitive stoppers are eating away at the tradition, the ceremony, and the sexy sizzle of the traditional cork.
Let’s face it, it’s the wonderful anticipation when the bottle is offered, the unwrapping of the foil capsule, the dignified pull of the cork, the gentle pop of its release, and the presentation of the cork that sets the scene for that marvelous first sip of wine. The slow expectation heightens the total wine experience. Just as it’s the sizzle that enhances the taste of the steak, it’s the looking forward to, the delayed gratification of that first sip that builds our anticipatory desire.
The Sexy Sizzle of the Wine Cork
For centuries wine enthusiasts, both novice and expert alike, have waited for the cork to be pulled, and when in public, presented to them. (Listen to Why Does Your Waiter Hand You the Cork? on Green Ink Radio to discover the answer to this age old question.) It was the love affair of ritual that continued to entice the modern wine consumer up until the last couple of decades. Sadly, the pomp, the sizzle, the anticipation has all begun to fade. Other players have entered the wine closure field and devoured almost 40 percent of the traditional cork market share (Gifford, 2016) and in many ways are stripping it of its old world elegance and tradition.
Fast forward to the aluminum screw cap; in terms of ceremony, it just doesn’t measure up. Sure, it’s quick and easy, but it’s about as romantic as a TV dinner. Yes, it does reduce spoilage, a little. And yes it is convenient as hell. But it’s sort of like putting on sneakers with a prom dress, practical but inelegant. Nonetheless, it has gained popularity, particularly amongst millennials, and now accounts for 20 percent of the wine-closure market. Then there’s the plastic stopper. Need I say more? A plastic plug in a living thing? Eegads. Nevertheless, it too has extracted 10 percent of the stopper trade from the cork industry (Gifford, 2016).
What’s so Great About a Cork?
There’s such a rich history of the cork, it is infused with legend, romance, and a little mystery (answers found on Spaz on Wine, Uncorked Why Does Your Waiter Hand You the Cork?). But in addition to that, there are numerous economical, enological, and environmental reasons why we should select natural cork stoppers when making our wine purchases:
- It is made from the bark of the evergreen oak. No trees are killed and it is sustainably harvested (mantoncork).
- The cork is biodegradable, aluminum screw caps and plastic plugs are not.
- The Mediterranean Cork Forest is comprised of over 7 million acres, which would be neglected or chopped down if not for the production of cork (Gifford, 2016).
- It’s environmentally friendly. The Mediterranean Cork Forest offsets 20 million tons of Co2 annually (Gifford).
- The Portugal Cork Forest has the greatest plant biodiversity of anywhere on the planet, with over 135 different thriving and unique species (Gifford).
- It provides a safe habitat for the endangered Iberian lynx and the Barbary deer (Gifford).
- It offers the ecological benefit of providing over 100,000 wine cork related jobs, which are among the last well-paying agricultural jobs available (Gifford).
- There is very little risk of getting a tainted wine from a natural cork stopper (currently about 1 percent due to recent technological advances) (Gifford).
- Corklins! Corks are made from the bark of the evergreen oak, so using them as stoppers creates some of the same effects as aging in oak barrels (Pomranz, 2018). The phenolic compounds released are tannins, polyphenols, and phenols (Schmitt, 2018). These phenols interact with catechins and malvidins and form different, enhanced compounds, named Corklins (Pomranz).
Sell the Sizzle, Baby!
My father often repeats the old sales saying, “You sell the sizzle, not the steak.” Well, my recommendation to the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance is Sell the sizzle, baby. Opening a bottle of wine with a natural cork is a sensual experience. It speaks of old world charm and days of yore that can be recaptured in that brief, timeless moment of drawing the cork away from the mysteries held within. A screwcap is just not going to be able to provide that sort of classy pomp. Let’s return to the prom dress analogy for a moment. Don’t get me wrong, I love my sneakers (probably more than I should), but nothing, and I mean nothing can compete with a pair of high heels to complete the overall prom look and experience. Go to a prom in sneakers or go in high heels. What is the more elegant choice?
The Cork Forest Conservation Alliance has a big job ahead of them. At Green Ink Radio we wish them the best! They are working to save the Mediterranean Cork Forest and its inhabits. Their slogan is “Pop a Cork, Save a Tree.” Hey, I’m doing my part saving the world, one bottle at a time. Why don’t you join me? Salute!
Gifford, J. (2016, February 25). How millennials (almost) killed the wine cork. The Atlantic. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/02/wine-cork-comeback/470961/
Mantoncork.com. The history of cork. Retrieved from: https://www.mantoncork.com/cork/
Pomranz, M. (2018, June 8). Are ‘corklins’ the reason wine bottled with a cork tastes different? Food & Wine. Retrieved from: https://www.foodandwine.com/news/wine-cork-taste-different-corklins
Schmitt, P. (2018, June 7). Compounds called corklins found in cork-stoppered wines. The Drinks Business. Retrieved from: https://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2018/06/compounds-called-corklins-found-in-cork-stoppered-wines/