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In Defence of the Humble Cork

The drawing of the cork from a bottle of wine is one of those rituals that evokes memories going back to childhood when, at some formal family luncheon, Great Uncle Albert would take a corkscrew from his sideboard and with due ceremony, gradually pull the cork from a dust covered bottle that had lain for years in his cellar. We would never get to try this treasured nectar because “it is not for children” but we would see the looks of appreciation and expectation on the faces of the adults around the table as they began to anticipate the flavours of the wine shortly to be poured into their glasses. 

Being only allowed to be observers at this feast would enable us to feel an impish twinge of hidden pleasure if, by some mischance, the cork broke when only halfway out. This would cause concern amongst those waiting and some small annoyance from Great Uncle Albert while we tried to hide our grins behind our hands. When, tragedy of tragedies, the cork disintegrated altogether and Great Uncle let out a cry of despair, it would be impossible for us to restrain our mirth, while the adults, being adults, failed miserably to see the funny side of this catastrophe and darkly threatened us with dire reprisals. 

So now that technology is scheming to take away these little pleasures, by proposing to replace the traditional cork stopper with “more efficient” substitutes made from plastic or metal, I am finding myself asking why? Is it really true that the traditional cork stopper is relatively inefficient? Not in my experience. The debate seems to have started on account of the old-fashioned cork being deemed too unreliable and leading to consumer dissatisfaction, however who started this debate and how reliable are the statistics? For my part I can only remember opening two or three “corked” bottles over a period of years and I therefore wonder why others are suffering much worse results? Would it be unfair to put forward the theory that this debate might be being driven by big, mass market wine producers who, finding corks an irritant, are looking for a more efficient or cost effective solution and are now trying to convince the wider public that this is the best way forward? I believe I am correct in saying that even the screw caps and plastic compound corks do not totally eliminate the problem. 

It is true that demand for cork has outstripped supply in recent years and as an inevitable consequence some corks have been made from lesser quality cork. However where a vigneron is willing to be careful in sourcing his supply, he is usually able to side-step this problem, with the result that the incidence of “corked” wines amongst bottles from good Domaines is much, much lower than the average. One vigneron has given us a detailed explanation of the tests he has conducted over several years. These have convinced him that artificial stoppers will impart negative flavours to bottles over three years old and for him the solution lies in quality corks, not substitute products. Hence my curiosity as to how and why this debate has surfaced and what is causing it to be driven to a conclusion that might spell the demise of a potentially innocent victim, the traditional cork stopper. 

Cork Trees - Click to open image. There have been concerns aired by environmentalists that if traditional cork ceases to be the stopper of choice, a side effect of this might well be the destruction or degradation of the sweeping open countryside that is a cork forest and the loss of vital wildlife habitats. The wine industry may well regard this as of little or no concern, however I believe that we, the consumer, should be concerned that the wine industry might be about to embark wholesale on a course that is, in itself, unsustainable and environmentally unsound. What I mean is that compound stoppers are largely made from oil based products and oil is now itself an endangered resource, while screw caps are steel and plastic. In both instances these materials are never going to be recycled and will end up in landfill or choking the Sargasso Sea. Instead of this, the humble natural cork is a fully renewable resource that will biodegrade in months and be incorporated into the ground on which it falls. 

The world today is seeking, with increasing urgency, for environmental solutions to man’s increasingly rapacious appetite for consumer goods that damage the planet. The wine industry finds itself, for reasons of historical accident and its largely traditional approach to everything it does, in a position of doing something that contributes to our planet’s well-being. I think it would be a mistake to throw this away for reasons of short term economic advantage and convenience. 

May I go back to where I started: What is the real argument for man made stoppers and what are the real statistics that support it? If we are seriously looking to create a sustainable future, where there is less dependence on man made materials, then we should be thinking very carefully about abandoning traditional cork, even if, every so often, we discover that a bottle of one of our favourite wines has, sadly, failed to live up to expectations. 

What? Plastic?? Great Uncle Albert would NOT approve! And sometimes composite corks can be harder than wisdom teeth to pull out.


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