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Cork: an endangered Mediterranean heritage

Cork has been extracted from the cork forests of the Western Mediterranean for millennia. Now, this Mediterranean heritage must confront the empire of plastic.

By Álex Lasmarías
Translated by Kirsten Dirksen

The cork forests are one of the most important symbols of the natural wealth of the Mediterranean basin. Humans have exploited them in a reasonable and sustainable way for the past 3000 years, preserving all their beauty and value.

Now, plastic threatens to banish their most prized product, cork, as the preference of bottlers and vintners.

Cork forests cover 2.7 million hectares (6.7 million acres) of the Western Mediterranean, distributed unevenly among Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.

Since time immemorial, their populations have taken advantage of the natural resources that this unique ecosystem offers by consolidating a system of exploitation that combines ranching, agriculture and forestry.

Currently, more than 100,000 people find their main source of income in cork forests, especially with jobs connected to the industry of cork, one of the most important products obtained from this tree with slightly reddish wood and a knotty trunk.

Cork, a miracle of natural engineering

Cork is simply bark from the Cork Oak tree and this is a magnificent example of the capacity of living organisms to adapt to the conditions of their natural environment.

To protect itself from the severities of the Mediterranean climate, the Cork Oak has developed a protective armor of dead cells filled with air –an intact framework of watertight compartments- that helps to retain its own humidity and at the same time protect it from the high temperatures of the Mediterranean climate as well as acting as a protective film in case of exposure to one of the habitual fires that periodically level its natural habitat.

These special characteristics make the bark of the Cork Oak a product of singular properties. It is praised for its extraordinary lightness (it’s made up 90% of air) as well as for being odorless, waterproof and easily pliable.

It is almost impossible for it to rot and it has a strong resistance to insect attacks or to the use of chemicals. Also more than remarkable is cork’s ability to insulate and to absorb all kinds of vibration.

This extensive catalogue of virtues has made cork a material extensively used and valued in a wide variety of economic activities, from construction to the pharmaceutical industry, from the production of footwear to aeronautical engineering, among many other applications.

But cork’s most prominent economic activity is, indisputably, the production of stoppers for wine bottles and other beverages. Eighty-five percent of worldwide cork production is destined for this market.

An example of reasonable and sustainable exploitation

Cork is a natural, renewable, and biodegradable material whose harvesting has a zero negative impact on the environment. To the contrary, the management and use of the cork oak provides an enormous benefit in economic, as well as social and ecological, terms.

To obtain cork, the forester extracts the bark of the tree without damaging it. This process is repeated periodically, in intervals that can oscillate between 9 and 12 years. It is not until the third harvesting (when the tree is already about 40 years old) that the bark is eligible to become bottle stoppers for the wine industry.

Keeping in mind that the average life of the cork oak is between 170 and 200 years, the forester can uncork each one of its trees around 15 times, generating a lucrative business connected with the conservation of the middle.

More than 15 million cork stoppers are produced annually. Slightly more than half are manufactured with cork originating in the Iberian Peninsula, where Spain and Portugal head the list as the most prominent cork powers worldwide.

An environmental gift

Preserving the cork oak, besides perpetuating a sustainable and profitable way of life for cork harvesters, it guarantees protection of a unique habitat and of extraordinary ecological value that acts as refuge for some of the most threatened species of the Iberian Peninsula and the Mediterranean.

According to the World Wildlife Federation (WWW), a surface area of cork oak equivalent to a fifth that of a football field harbors 135 species of plants.

And it’s at the foot of a Cork Oak where we still have some hope of seeing members of species in serious risk of extinction such as the Barbary deer or Iberian Lynx. The cork oak is also the last refuge for animals increasingly more difficult to see in the Mediterranean such as the imperial eagle, the chameleon or the civet.

All types of birds of prey find sustenance in these forests and millions of migratory birds find in cork oaks the ideal place in which to establish their winter headquarters.

The environmental benefits that man obtains from cork oaks is not limited to their position as a true refuge for flora and fauna. There is more. The cork oak has an amazing ability to capture CO2 due to the special characteristics of its bark.

Its responsible exploitation, with the consequent process of renewal of the cork, even further emphasizes this virtue. A cork oak that is periodically removed of its bark produces five times more cork than an untreated tree, with which its potential as a carbon dioxide fixative multiplies.

The cork oak, like forests formed by other species, contributes to fixing soil and protecting it from the dangers of erosion and desertification and to collecting water for natural aquifers.

But in the case of the cork oak, these characteristics are joined by its indispensable role as natural protector and mitigating factor against the effects of forest fires, a phenomenon that annually critically reduces the forest area of the Mediterranean.

Plastic, the great threat

As we have already discussed in this article, the economic base that supports the fundamental exploitation of cork oak is the cork harvested for its subsequent utilization as bottle stoppers.

But the situation is changing quickly and the consequences can be ill-fated for this habitat intimately connected with the economic and rural identity of the Mediterranean.

In a report published by the WWF/Adena they predict a future full of uncertainty for cork. According to their forecasts, keeping constant the statistics of the past few years, in 2015 95% of wine bottles produced worldwide would be sold with synthetic stoppers or screw tops. Cork would remain imprisoned in the niche pertaining to high quality wines.

To satisfy the demands of this elite sector, an annual cork production of little more than 19,000 tons would be sufficient as opposed to the 300,000 tons currently produced every year. In this environment, up to two million hectares (4.9 million) of cork oak would be abandoned to its luck against the risk of forest fires, desertification or conversion toward other uses.

No fewer than 50,000 people employed by the sector and forest workers could lose their jobs, many of them in regions with especially fragile and precarious economies.

Why plastic?

The main forces behind the current boom in the use of plastic as wine stoppers are Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and other countries, especially in Latin America, with growing prominence in the international wine-growing scene.

Their cultural and geographical distance from the world of cork have caused many of the new producers to opt for a solution considered more efficient and cheap than that of the traditional cork stopper.

Besides, many of these zones are specialized in white wines young enough to barely even rest in wood casks, which is the segment that best accepts in qualitative terms the use of plastic.

One must also take into consideration the unjust smear campaign against natural cork carried out on the part of businesses and pressure groups with interests in the chemical sector.

A campaign that threatens by spreading ideas such as the greater efficiency of plastic in conserving a wine, cork’s impact on the final price of the product, the greater sustainability of the use of synthetic materials or the impossibility of adapting cork production to the demands of an expanding market.

Dismantling myths

None of these arguments stand up to examination, even on a superficial basis. We have analyzed them as follows:

Plastic is more efficient than cork as a bottle stopper? Flat out no. The cork plug besides contributing practically in its instrumental aspect is an element that positively influences the process of evolution that a wine experiences after being bottled. Everyone knows that a good wine does not remain unchanged in the bottle.

As an organic element, its molecular structure continues to be submitted to changes and variations that affect its flavor and its capacity to generate different sensations in our palate. The relationship between the wine and the cork is dynamic. The cork contributes to the ripening of the liquid exchanging with it volatile organic compounds such as, for example, vanillin, and anthocyanin, present in cork and that influence the flavor and astringency of wine.

Recent studies have shown (though more studies are needed) that cork also passes polyphenols to the wine. These are antioxidants which can contribute to reducing cardiovascular risk and to delaying some degenerative diseases.

It is cheaper to use synthetic stoppers than those of natural cork? Again the answer is no. Using plastic stoppers or screw tops doesn’t reduce the price.

The price of the cork stopper and that of its artificial counterparts are practically identical and cost about 0.09 euro (13 cents) per unit. Something more expensive, 0.15 euro (22 cents), are the metal screw tops that are also beginning to proliferate on the shelves of bottle shops.

There is enough cork to bottle all the world’s bottles of wine? In this case, the answer yes requires greater clarifications. The wine-growing sector began to contemplate synthetic stoppers during the nineties due to the difficulties, at that moment, of obtaining high quality cork.

When trees were over-exploited and cork wasn’t treated with the necessary strict standards, the cork product proved to be a much less efficient device. It became sadly famous among wine aficionados by the term TCA, or “cork taint“.

A spoilage of the wine caused by the deficient stoppering by low quality cork that gives the liquid a characteristic and unpleasant flavor of mold and of, precisely, cork. Since then cork processing has advanced considerably to fight this problem, but it is still not always simple to obtain good corks.

Although the situation could be easily changed, allowing for not only product security, but great social benefits.

According to calculations collected by WWF/Adena in its report “Cork, yes”, the performance per hectare of cork oak differs greatly among the different producing countries. In Portugal, for example, they harvest an average of 158 kilograms of cork per hectare per year.

In Spain, the average is 107 kilograms. On the other hand, along the southern coast of the Mediterranean, the figures fall far below the excellent productivity of the Peninsula.

In Morocco, this figure is less than 50 kilograms per year and in Algeria it barely surpasses 20. If we keep in mind that the joint surface of cork oak forests of these two Maghrebi countries is practically equal to the more than 800,000 hectares (2 million acres) of cork forest in Portugal, it’s evident that we are very far from reaching the productive ceiling for cork stoppers.

Even without reaching the extremes of Morocco and Algeria, cork farmers in Tunisia, France and Italy fall far short of those in Portugal or Spain in regards to extracting the maximum product from their trees.

With a correct investment in the sector, the market would have more than enough cork to satisfy practically any growth horizon for the world’s wine-growing sector. An expectation that could be extremely beneficial for economies in need of investment such as those of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.

FSC certification, hope for an industry with fear of tomorrow

The perpetuation of the use of natural cork stoppers in the wine industry is equivalent to guaranteeing the protection of a fragile genuinely Mediterranean ecosystem.

Beyond that, it signifies the preservation of economic, social and environmental stability for extensive zones of the Western Mediterranean and opens the door for development -environmentally sustainable and beneficial- that could significantly aid the suffocated economies of the Southern Mediterranean.

One of the tools that could help cork confront the threatening empires of plastic and chemical components is FSC certification and the corresponding guarantee of responsible management of Cork Oak forests.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an independent, non-profit agency that monitors the sustainable and responsible exploitation of forests, according to criteria of sustainability, economic viability and social benefit.

Currently, FSC operates in 62 countries, both directly as well as in vouching for different forest certification programs like SmartWood, an initiative of the Rainforest Alliance that was the first certification of this type in existence and that today is the most extensive one worldwide.

SmartWood delivered its first certifications to the cork sector in 2005 and since then has worked intensely in this area, as much among producers as buyers of the raw material, especially in Portugal, Spain and Italy.

This has enabled, for example, the approval of the management of almost 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) of Andalusian cork oak whose management, according to the analyst of SmartWood, is adapted to the standards set by the FSC.

Jamie Lawrence, Smartwood’s regional manager for Western Europe, considers that “the economy, culture and environmental sustainability of some of the last natural areas of the Iberian peninsula rests on increased demand for sustainably produced cork”. A demand which in large part can be attributable to the will of end users.

Consumers have the opportunity to send a clear message to wine industry executives with their purchasing habits, by rejecting the purchase of bottles with plastic stoppers and remaining faithful to the traditional use of cork.

And the fact is that, as Lawrence explains, “without the demand for cork, economic pressures could force farmers to abandon the active management of cork forests, which may lead to rural exodus as well as unbalance the ecosystems that preserve the biodiversity of these Mediterranean hotspots”.

The concession of FSC certificates should be a full guarantee to the consumer that the cork from the bottle they just bought has been obtained with full respect to the environment and complying with the highest demands of social and ecological responsibility.

Dagón Bodegas wines, an encouraging example

In March of 2008, the annual Food fair in Barcelona was the setting for an event that could indicate a path of hope for the cork trees of Spain.

At one of the most important meeting places for the international food industry, the organization WWF/Adena, responsible for the campaign “Corcho sí, alcornocales vivos” (Yes to cork, cork trees alive), offered its full support to Dagón Bodegas wine cellars, the first winery in Europe and the third one worldwide to use only cork with FSC certification FSC to stopper its bottles.

Miguel Márquez, owner of this business with wines from the Utiel-Requena region, wanted to take advantage of the event to show his desire “to offer consumers a natural product of the best quality that guarantees the consumer its sustainable origin and the FSC seal is the best icon, because of its international recognition and the guarantees of environmentally and socially responsible exploitation”.

An initiative that, in words of Enrique Segovia, director of conservation for WWF/Adena, constitutes “a historic milestone and an example that we should expect to be imitated by other vintners”.

As almost always, it’s up to us

Thus, from the capacity of the cork industry to continue innovating in the improvement of its products and in the securing of formulae that allow for the harmonizing of sustainable use with the acquisition of economic returns to, above all, the firm will of consumers, lies the preservation of a unique and irreplaceable habitat of the Mediterranean landscape.

It’s up to us to turn our backs on an industry that could, with the stroke of a pen, end centuries of tradition and to condemn the abandonment of the cork oak forests and the corresponding endangerment of many threatened species, aggravation of the risk of desertification of the Western Mediterranean and the closing of the door on socioeconomic improvement in regions and countries with weak economies. Also, in cork is written a part of our future.

Don’t let them make it plastic.