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The Wine Cork Mystery

I was browsing through my local paper the other day and came across an article by Jon Rogers. Jon, of Wines Without the Mystery, is a wine educator and consultant who teaches a wide variety of classes. The article was entitled: You have no need to fear ‘the cork ritual’. The article presents some great advice on the presentation and evaluation of the cork in a restaurant. While his article was extremely informative, the questions that popped into my head were much more basic. For example, when did cork become the favorite way to plug a wine bottle? Where does the cork come from that wineries use everyday? I figured it was time to get back to my research to find some answers.

The Egyptians first used cork as a stopper thousands of years ago. Later, ancient Greeks and Romans used cork for a variety of uses, including stoppers for vessels of wine and olive oil. In the 1600’s, a monk called Dom Perignon was using wooden stoppers wrapped in rags to seal his bottles of wine. These crude plugs most often just popped out and were ineffective. He started using cork plugs and successfully stoppered his best wines. Wine bottling would never be the same, as cork soon became the essential answer to successfully sealing the bottles.

In 1750, the first cork stopper factory opened in Anguine, Spain. The widespread use of cork ultimately resulted in wine bottles undergoing a transformation from short and fat to tall and slender, because the slender neck was easily sealed with cork plugs. Spain and Portugal produce over 80 percent to the cork used in the world. Cork comes from the bark of a Cork Oak Tree. The bark of trees older than 25 years is carefully stripped from the tree to protect it and perpetuate the life of the tree. The bark is dried for up to six months then boiled for a few hours and then allowed to dry another 2 to 4 weeks.

After the final drying process, the bark is carefully cut or molded into the correct sizes. A washing process follows using chemicals that sanitize the corks from any bacterial growth. Bacterial growth in the cork would quickly render a wine useless to drink. New technologies for eliminating cork contamination are also being used such as irradiation. Corks are then shipped in specially sealed bags to wherever they are needed. The entire cork making process could very well last a year.

Portugal continues to be the world leader in cork production. There are over 5 million acres of cork forest in the world and over thirty percent of that area is in Portugal. There are three basic sizes of natural cork from the standard size up to the larger champagne cork. While cork is still the preferred sealer for bottled wine, some wine producers have begun using screw cap sealing systems on their bottles; thereby, throwing out the romance and sophistication of opening a corked bottle of great wine. Corks can easily be used to re-seal partially used bottles of wine. Smelling the cork when it is first removed will give you a quick idea of a wine’s quality. Because of its fire resistance, cork is now also used in rocket technology. Who knows what other uses may develop from this natural product.

As I always say, buy the wine you prefer, store it properly, and serve it at the correct temperature and you will enhance your enjoyment of this unique beverage. Do not forget, smelling the cork will provide you critical evidence of what your first sip might taste like.

Author: Ronald Senn, Vice-president, Ideal Wine Coolers, July 2010.

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