Cork and wine is part of the same tradition and heritage – and more so than meets the eye.
With the Burgundy vineyards becoming UNESCO world heritage it’s in my view important to look at the other historic and cultural elements of the viticulture traditions of Europe – to ensure these are maintained and perhaps even vitalised.
The cork production and the cork forests are sectors that are having traditions closely related to the cultural dimensions of wine and wine production.
So lets go just south of the border to Catalonia to admire the old traditions of cork production.
Disclaimer … I’m under the influence of cork!
I had the pleasure of being invited to Catalonia to learn more about the cork production by the large cork producer Trefinos – in relation to the 250 years anniversary of the Trefinos company.
The topic of the trip was to tell about the benefits of the cork forest – environmentally and economically – and less so about the products made by Trefinos. Thanks a lot to Trefinos for the fine and very interesting event – and the interesting knowledge and informations exchanged during this intensive day in Catalonia.
Joaquim Bech de Careda and his cork forest near the French border
This week I was in the northern Catalonia close to the border to France – just outside the village of Agullana.
There I had the opportunity to explore the cork forest of Joaquim Bech de Careda – a retired Economist who are now taking care of the family cork forest in the mountains just above Agullana – one of the old villages that were build on the wealth from the cork production – see the exact location on the map below.
Joaquim Bech de Careda explained the history of the area, his own history and his passion for the cork forest and cork production in the area. He described his role as a cork grower, how he planted the cork oaks, and patiently have watched them grow for many years, before they were ready for the first harvest of cork.
The very first harvest is normally done after minimum 25 years, it yields what is called virgin cork. This do not yield material for producing high quality natural corks. It’s from the second harvest and onwards that the cork can be used for producing natural corks for fine wines. So it actually takes 40 to 50 years before Joaquim Bech de Careda is finally able to sell his harvest of cork – that can be used for producing traditional cork enclosures.
It normally takes 9 to 12 years between the harvests of cork. When the time is right the cork layer is harvested by very skilled workers, who peal of the outer layer of bark and cork – with very basic tools – carefully cutting the outside of the oak with no damage to the tree underneath the cork and bark layer. This ensures that cork can be harvested from the same tree over and over again – with some 9 to 12 years intervals. It’s important to note, that harvesting the cork does not harm or kill the tree, hence it can deliver cork many times in it’s lifetime – on average 16 times during it’s productive lifespan.
Joaquim Bech de Careda sell the cork to a producer of cork enclosures, who then transforms the large pieces of cork into cork enclosures used in the wine business.
In the old days the production of corks took place in Agullana just a few kilometers away, where the prodction of cork created prosperity for the local people and especially the owners of the cork producing companies in the area.
The cork village Agullana
The cork village Agullana has no doubt been a wealthy area due to the cork production in the area. The photo below show one of the houses of one of the cork factory owners – a prominent building in the middle of the village.
There are now only museums left, but the tradition, the trade and the craftsmanship is being carried on by people like Joaquim Bech de Careda – proud people that are protecting not only the forest but also the heritage and the traditions.
The photo below show one element of how they in the old days used to produce corks with rather simple tools in the small facturies.
Cork and wine production to sides of the same heritage and tradition
The production of cork have many similarities with the world of Burgundy even today. The individual grower of cork produce and harvest the cork, as the small vignerons in Burgundy – who sell the grapes to negociant. The negociant makes the wine – just as the cork producer transform the large pieces of cork into corks enclosures in the factories, and sell them to the wine producers.
In both cases it takes decades from planting the tree/wine until a top product can be harvested. In Burgundy at least 20 years before the wines are producing at the highest quality level, and in the cork forest it takes more than 40 to 50 years before the cork can be used as a closure for the finest wines – wines from vines that sometimes are older than the cork oak that produced the cork enclosing the bottle.
The setup is the same – small growers and large negociants that creates the enclosures and the wine, often located in the larger villages – in Burgundy the negociants are located in Beaune and before also in Nuits-Saint-Georges. In Catalonia the corks production has moved from the small factories in Agullana to a large factory in Parafrugell located between Barcelona and Girona.
The initial work is almost unchanged through generations – whereas the production of the cork is done in a much larger scale with the use of advanced technology.
The cork and the wine are closely linked both in purpose and tradition – and both are fruits of the nature … and an important part of the economy in these somewhat remote areas.
The natural benefits of cork
Using cork as wine stoppers or enclosures is not only the natural thing, it’s also great for the enviroment, as the cork forests are absorbing a tremendous amount of CO2 – hence also contributing to reduce the climate change that is now affecting Burgundy.
The cork forests around the Mediterranean sea is absorbing or retaining 14 million tonnes of CO2 per year thus being a very large factor in reducing the negative effects of CO2 emissions.
What is important to note is that cork oaks that are used for cork production – with the bark and cork regularly harvested – absorb much more CO2 – actually on average five times as much CO2 as a cork oak not used for cork production.
Having cork forest in production is not only natural, it’s also a major benefit for the environment.
To be honest – I did not know this, and it sort of makes it ironic to use a screw cap closure on a natural or biodynamic wine. Using cork is a part of the biodynamie, as the cork oak in return will contribute to lesser climate effects and global warming.
So drink wines with cork enclosures if you care about the environment!
Aside from this the cork have for centuries and centuries proven itself to be the best and most reliable closure for wine.
Cork and technical cork
The good old cork stopper made from one piece of cork is still my prefered enclosure to be honest, and luckily most of the producers in Burgundy also use this in most of the red wines.
The technical cork enclosure has become quite popular especially for the generic wines and for the white Burgundies.
The technical cork is made from cork granulate (small pieces of cork) that is “glued” and pressed together to a enclosure that has the same shape and size as the traditional cork.
These corks can be made in different ways and there are different producers that are becoming quite well known in Burgundy. The Diam closure is one and Trefinos Cwine closures another type – both made for the higher end wines.
The advantage of these corks is that the technical properties of these closures can be specified quite precisely and the closures delivered will all match the specifications within a limited tolerances.
One thing that will be known is the permeability – i.e. the amount of oxygen that is able to pass through the technical cork. This influences the oxidation and ageing of the wine in the bottle – and hence this can to a certain degree be controlled via the choice of the type of cork. I will discuss the permeability topic in a separate article.
The technical corks are – as the name indicates – made of cork. Some are made of 75% cork, others with less cork – so they do to some degree have the same positive environmental effects – due to the fact that they support the oak forest and the harvesting of cork in these forests.
The myths of corks
There are two major arguments presented for using plastic corks and screw caps – both related to some myths created about the use of cork closures.
Firstly there is no shortage of cork – as indicated by some – the production is more than sufficient to cover the demand from the wine industry. Firstly the use of screw caps and plastic corks in lesser wines have reduced the overall demand, thus more is left for producing high quality natural corks or technical corks of both high and low quality. The production of technical cork is furthermore more efficient as the waste of cork material is limited compared to producing only traditional corks.
The production of traditional corks does leave a quite a lot of cut-away cork, that now can be used for technical corks, thus minimising the waste of good cork.
Secondly the TCA problem. This problem has been reduced tremendously by the cork industry. The technical corks can be effectively treated against TCA making the event of a bad cork highly unlikely. It should be noted that TCA is present in the environment and can be found in casks and buildings – so while the cork is TCA free, TCA can be introduced by other sources.
The natural cork can also to a certain degree be treated against TCA and the industry is making great efforts to find new methods to eliminate the risk of TCA from the natural corks also. Trefinos is just testing a new setup to improve the anti TCA treatment of traditional corks.
TCA is not really a big problem today – In my view – I rarely have a tainted cork in the bottles I taste – and thats quite a few a year. So to name TCA a big problem is in my view far out of proportions. And it certainly do not justify to put a plastic thing or a aluminium lid on my precious bottles!
One for the corks
Cork is to me the obvious choice when I’m thinking enclosures for wine – I have collected wines for around 30 years, and they have served me very well indeed so far.
The problems have been few, and as the corks have improved over the years, even very rare. I have taken the cork for granted, as other closures have been introduced into the market for fine Burgundies.
Now I’m sometimes faced with wines closed by a screw cap or some kind of synthetic closure … and this, I must confess, do take something away from my wine experience – the aesthetics and the tradition.
The knowledge about the benefits of the cork forest and the production of cork does put this in a new and more rational perspective. The environmental benefits are clear and work for less global warming and therefore also better wines in Burgundy in the long run are too important to ignore.
To put a plastic or a screw cap closure on a natural, organic or biodynamic wine simply does not make any sense in my world!
Go Cork! – save the Wine – save the Planet!