Put a Cork in It

By Kitty Neusteter

Today, opening a bottle of wine often means giving a cap a quick twist. Easy, yes, but aluminum screw tops—not to mention plastic stoppers—are putting the squeeze on the sustainable, centuries-old natural-cork industry.

A biodegradable, renewable resource, cork is produced largely in Portugal and Spain, where cork-oak forests are home to many endangered animals. To harvest cork, farmers strip off the trees’ spongy bark every 10 or so years, a process that actually keeps the tree healthy. But now the weakened cork market is forcing farmers to opt for faster-growing eucalyptus.
Proponents of synthetic bottle closures argue that natural cork is expensive and susceptible to cork taint—a musty smell and flavor imparted to wine via natural cork infected with the compound 2,4,6 trichloroanisole (TCA). But environmentalists and oenophiles counter that synthetics wind up in landfills and produce subpar wine. “Natural cork breathes very slowly, and high-quality wines won’t mature and develop properly without real cork,” says Sam Kaplan, winemaker at Arkenstone Vineyards in Napa, California. What’s more, the Cork Quality Council estimates that cork taint now affects less than 1 percent of wine, thanks to refined cork cleaning and processing standards. And a 2009 article in the trade publication Vineyard & Winery Management called TCA “no longer a major problem for the American wine industry.”

Although you may be seeing fewer natural corks, some wineries have committed to using them. Look for the Forest Stewardship Council logo on labels, and for a list of wineries that have joined the World Wildlife Fund’s Cork Initiative, go to panda.org.