There is a strong Asterix vibe to the annual cork oak harvest of the Alentejo in Portugal. Deep into one of the 350 remaining cork oak forests (in my case Herdade dos Fidalgos, near Lisbon) sometime between June and this month you’ll suddenly come across a team of about 20 men, ranging in ages from 16 to 70, striking huge twisted trees with axes. Then, with a sensitivity you would not associate with an axe, they prise the juicy bark from the tree and it is levered from the trunk in great, satisfying pieces. From the base, right up to the beginning of the branches, it is peeled away to reveal the oak’s red, nude surface underneath.
When the tree is completely harvested, the axeman takes a swig from his water barrel and moves on to the next. Periodically, a truck comes to collect the pieces of cork and take them to nearby sheds where they will be weathered for months before being processed. The truck is the only obvious exception to a process that hasn’t changed since the 18th century, when montados (open cork oak woodlands) and forests here in Portugal, in southern Spain, Morocco, Algeria and Turkey began to be exploited commercially to produce wine corks. A white number is painted on the tree. It will be nine years before it’s disturbed again.
“You need to be very skilled so that you can be sensitive with the axe,” said Daniel Pereira, who at 26 is one of the younger harvesters.
He’s a jovial type and laughs as he talks.
“Some of these trees are more than 100 years old. I don’t want to be the one to damage them,” he said. “I spent four years learning to harvest. This is the job everyone wants to do. It’s very well paid.”
• Natural cork: Cork has more than 400 years’ experience in stopping wine bottles, but it is also charged with spoiling 3 percent to 5 percent of global wine. Spanish law now dictates that wineries in 11 regions must use natural cork to receive a DO (Denominacion de Origen) quality status. This won’t do much to counter charges of a southern European monopoly.
• Screw cap: Once the surest way to get yourself barred from the dinner-party circuit, screw-caps are now billed as the solution to both cork taint and the less-technical issue of “where’s the bloody corkscrew?”
Guala Closures, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers, claims sales are growing at half a billion a year, and screw-caps are getting clever with plastic filters and layers to deliver oxygen to maturing wines.
• The plastic stopper: Entrepreneur Dennis Burns, a producer of pro-tech hockey helmets in the US, decided to use a similar polyethylene composite to make a synthetic wine “cork” with no chance of taint. Burns’s Supreme Corq is one of the biggest of the 30 synthetic cork producers worldwide. Its rival, Nomacorc, produced 1.4 million plastic corks last year — enough to circle the earth 1.33 times. The synthetic boys don’t buy cork’s ecological superiority.
“Many are just cork granules and dust bonded with solvents,” Simon Waller of Supreme Corq said. “They are no more biodegradable than our product.”
• The Zork: It’s new(ish) and loud and hails from New Zealand. The Zork (a hybrid of “zero” and “cork”) is a low-density plastic closure that boasts sophisticated tamper-evident design and inner foil oxygen barriers. The innovation will need to be more sophisticated than the color — bright pink or red, which may put off serious wine drinkers. It’s gaining popularity in US wine bars for by-the-glass fizz.
Pereira turns serious: “There is nothing like cork.”
And there really isn’t. For starters, cork is the only tree bark that doesn’t contain lengthwise fibers, which is why you can (sensitively) chop into it with an axe and return nine years later for a repeat performance. Pliny the Elder gave the cork oak a mention in his Naturalis Historia: his brethren used cork for their sandals, and corks as wine bottle stoppers were found in amphorae at Pompei. A cork oak can live for more than 200 years.
The best of the pieces harvested here, the thickest and smoothest cork, will be punched into wine corks for some of the finest vintages from the best wineries on earth. The other pieces will provide granules for the more workaday wines — the type I’m more familiar with. It’s as if globalization never happened: Instead of outsourced, sub-contracted workers slaving away for a pittance, here we have local men, happily swinging axes in the depths of the forest near to where their families have often lived for generations.
Pereira and his colleagues can harvest 10 large trees or 20 to 30 medium-sized trees in a day. I ask if the workers are unionized (a standard ethical-sounding question when you’re standing idly by trying to justify people working very hard). The boss laughs.
“These guys don’t really need a union. Their jobs are well paid,” he said.
For each day, they will earn about 120 euros (US$152). In a rural area of big unemployment, that’s three months of big bucks that sustains them through smaller repair and farming jobs during the rest of the year.
The cork oak’s ecological contribution is just as munificent. The trees naturally occur in mixed-plant woodlands — the Rolls-Royce of forestry — and their root systems are excellent water regulators in this semi-arid landscape. They also anchor the soil and offer shade to the biodiverse species. According to a World Wildlife Fund report, the remaining 108,000 hectares of Portuguese cork oak forests are instrumental in preventing this region from turning into a dustbowl. Each tree sustains 100 species; it is pretty much the only place in which the rare short-toed eagle and extremely rare Iberian lynx will consider living. It is a living, breathing European ecosystem and effective carbon sink (conservative estimates say the cork forests sequester 10m tonnes of carbon-dioxide every year) and really, how many of these do we have knocking about?