Thursday, December 6, 2012

Cheers to those helping save corks!

Getting into the spirit of Christmas, Ireland’s biggest selling newspaper, the Sunday Independent, ran an article in its last issue that will be welcomed by all in the Algarve and the rest of the Iberian Peninsula who side with corks in the War of the Stoppers.
The article was a timely reminder that market forces controlling how wine bottles are capped are still rampant and working against corks. Despite a reported cork resurgence in recent years, screw caps and plastic stoppers favoured by New World wine producers have  captured at least 20% of the market.
The Sunday Independent quoted the World Wildlife Fund in reporting that an estimated three-quarters of the western Mediterranean’s cork oak forests could be lost within 10 years. The plastic and screw top momentum could take up to 80% of the wine bottle market well before that.
While doing what it can to help, the WWF continues to express serious concern about a possible disastrous scenario. “Cork forests – home to endangered species such as the Iberian lynx and Iberian imperial eagle – have been protected and valued due to the centuries-old demand for cork in the wine industry. But the increasingly popular use of alternative stoppers threatens this environmentally and economically sustainable industry and leaves cork forests unprotected.”
Portugal produces about half of the cork harvested annually worldwide. In the past 10 years, cork forests in the Algarve have reportedly declined by 28%. One firm is said to have seen a fall of 70%, with its cork products now being used only for sparkling wine bottles.
The harvesting of cork oak, with the bark totally renewing itself after each nine-year harvest, offers one of the finest examples of traditional, sustainable land use. Cork oak woodlands provide a livelihood for 10,000 people in southern Portugal and many thousands more in southern Spain and parts of France, Italy Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. It is not only these livelihoods that are in danger if the demand for cork dwindles as feared.
The worry is that market forces may lead to the woodlands being felled to make way for other cash crops. “Cork oak forests also play a key role in maintaining watersheds, preventing erosion and keeping soils healthy, says the World Wildlife Fund. “They are a great example of balanced conservation and economic development. Their preservation is vital for the well-being of the Mediterranean region.”
If they are not preserved, climate change and erosion could bring about desertification. If that happened, the natural undergrowth, wild animals and birds the oak woodlands now support would be displaced or driven to extinction. Livestock, such as black pigs free-ranging on acorns, would no longer have their traditional pastures.
Cork is so crucial ecomonically that the Portuguese government has declared the industry’s  survival “a national cause.” Scientists are hellping the cause with laboratory investigations designed to improve the quality of cork products and by introducing a new European protocol to certify standards. Reuters reported recently that Spain’s cork-producing regions had set scientists the task of ensuring that nature’s stoppers are free from any of that infamous ‘cork taint.’
There are pros as well as cons for the synthetic alternatives, but while the War of the Stoppers rages on, the writer of the Sunday Independent article last weekend urged readers to continue to pop corks by saying: “This simple choice is a small but positive gesture towards those Portuguese and Spanish farmers hanging in there. Raise a glass or two to them. I will join you. (O mesmo por favor!) Fill 'em up again, lads.” 


  1. Hi Len,
    I thought it was always about the Alentajo, since most of the cork forests are there. The Algarve was a sideshow in the cork business.
    Even the price of land in the Alentajo was governed by the price of cork.

    1. The Algarve is reputed to produce some of the best cork in the world. It is grown across the rolling hills of the Serra do Caldeirão in the northeast of the region. The town of São Brás de Alportel is the main processing centre. High quality cork is also grown elsewhere in the Algarve and, of course, over wide stretches of the Alentejo.

  2. Maybe we should all switch to champagne. Good champagne, of course!

    1. Popping the cork is certainly part of the enjoyment of Champagne. Those of us fortunate to live in Portugal also get pleasure out of uncorking bottles from an extraordinary range of good and reasonably priced sparkling, red, white, pink and green wines produced in this country.