| Sept 6
Sept 6 For three generations Antonio Gorgot's
family have carried axes into the mountainous forests of
northern Spain to cut slabs of bark off their cork oaks. A few
years ago their livelihood was under threat as the cork business
lost its buoyancy.
Sales of Spanish cork plummeted between 2008 and 2010 as
plastic wine stoppers or metal screw tops made headway globally
alongside declining wine consumption.
But now the traditional cork business has recovered, rescued
by unlikely saviours: cutting-edge laboratory researchers in
white coats who are demonstrating why nature's stopper may still
be one of the best ways of preserving and serving bottled wine.
"We're totally in debt to the labs. It's great for our
market that they have shown that cork has advantages over other
competitors," said Gorgot, 53.
Now natural wine cork production is back at levels of its
best times, a bright spot in a Spanish economy that is mired in
its second recession in just three years.
Cork cutters and wine producers say the turnaround is
largely due to scientists helping them boost the quality of cork
production by introducing a strict new European protocol to
certify quality corks.
Spain's cork-producing regions of Catalonia, Andalucia and
Extremadura have set scientists the task of ensuring corks don't
have any infamous "cork taint" - a musty odour caused by the
chemical trichloroanisole (TCA).
The Catalan Cork Institute (ICC) in Girona, the largest
research institute of its kind, has had its public funding cut
but continues its work due to contracts with cork producers and
wine bottlers wanting improved standards to give them an edge.
The laboratory tests wine corks and bottles of wine from
producers to see which stoppers perform best. It tests whether
corks emit smells or contaminating molecules, does a
microbiological analysis and also checks out torque and
extraction to see how strong the cork is.
Results, which include comparisons with plastic stoppers,
are used by bottlers to make buying decisions.
The result is higher quality corks being used for wine,
driving out poor quality offerings.
The testing has also shown that sometimes wine tasters have
wrongly blamed corks. Juan Pablo Orio, director of research and
development at winemaker Bodegas Riojanas remembers:
"At a wine tasting in England a client complained that a wine
tasted of cork but when we checked on it, it had a plastic
That kind of scapegoating is becoming less common thanks to
cork producers implementing stricter protocols.
The research has also helped cork producers to better market
themselves, particularly targeting the more lucrative export
market beyond crisis-rattled Spain.
Spain has exported cork since the 19th century and is now
the second largest cork exporter in the world, last year selling
300 million euros ($384.03 million) of cork abroad. Spain each
year sells 3 billion corks, making 1.3 billion for sparkling
wines and 1.7 billion for ordinary wines.
While many mid- to low-range wines are increasingly bottled
with plastic or metal corks in big wine drinking countries like
Britain and Germany, Spain's producers are now pushing the
advantages of traditional cork.
"With the alternative corks people lost sight of the fact
that real cork works very well," said Manel Pretel, director of
the ICC. "(Synthetic corks) generated problems such as the loss
or gain of oxygen which weren't issues with real cork."
Cork can be compressed on bottling lines and then instantly
revert to 85 percent of its original size to form an airtight
seal for the bottle.
Rival synthetic cork producers have noticed the improvement
in natural corks but say there are still many poor quality corks
on the market.
The most expensive natural corks are cut from a slab of bark
in one piece, but "agglomerated" corks are made from the offcuts
"Those corks have a chemical that's a lot more aggressive
and complex than the plastic we use," said Carlos Valero,
manager of ExcellentCork, a synthetic maker in Alicante.
Spain's cork industry says, however, that developments from
laboratories like the ICC have led to an improved quality in
Increasingly, environmentally aware consumers are also drawn
to the fact that growing cork trees helps the planet since
forests of cork-oak trees, Quercus suber, remove carbon dioxide
from the atmosphere. Also, cork is a renewable resource, since
the bark of the tree grows back.
"It's (the) green economy: respecting natural regeneration
cycles and respecting the ecosystem," said the ICC's Pretel.
Gorgot and his crew of between four and seven men harvest
the cork in the thick forest of Alt Emporda, bordering France,
between May and August, searching for the trees planted in
higgledy-piggledy formations, rather than rows. An experienced
cork cutter can earn 100 euros a day during the harvest season.
A cork tree must grow 25 years for the first harvest, and
then it's another eight to 14 years until the next bark has been
formed. And the bark is not good enough for corks until the
"You don't learn to cut cork in one or two years," said
Gorgot. "You need a lot of skill with the axe. You need to leave
behind the lower layer of bark that regenerates the next harvest
($1 = 0.7812 euros)
(Writing by Sarah Morris; Editing by Fiona Ortiz)