The Natural Philosophy of Cork, A Green Business

Ξ November 19th, 2009 | → 6 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, PORTUGAL, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers |

Cork versus screw cap. The conversation has gotten quite stale for the wine drinker. And that is because the terms of debate largely revolve around the issue of the preservation of wine alone. Nothing but the noise of competing industries on this topic may be regularly heard. A drinker may be forgiven for believing that it really doesn’t matter how wine is sealed. Has cork improved in recent years? Has the incidence of TCA contamination been dramatically reduced? Are there reduction issues associated with screw cap? And does cork matter? To all of these questions the answer is a resounding “yes”.
Robert Parker, recently returned from the WineFuture Conference in Spain observed on his website just this week that
“…the tiny percentage of corked bottles confirms what I have been seeing for the last 3-4 years…that industry has awakened following the decline in cork quality…”
Yet how does this information influence the drinker in their purchasing decisions? Perhaps not at all. Something is missing from the popular discussion. Indeed, much more than something is missing.
There exists a broad range of important issues that the cork manufacturer Amorim has taken the lead in publicizing. Cork is a renewable, entirely recyclable resource. Cork forests play an indispensable role in plant and animal ecosystems and sanctuaries, as reservoirs of biodiversity and even speciation. Family traditions remain intact and thrive through the careful husbandry of cork oak trees generations-old for a fair price. Local economies are sustained by its stable cultivation. Harvesting requires skills patiently acquired. And manufacturing offers productive employment to 1000s. These and still other positive social and environmental values are available for all to read on Amorim’s Cork Facts page, a rich source of current information on the state of the culture and industry.
Doing my part to celebrate this noble product, I offer an account of a tour of the the Quinta da Lagoalva, both the estate and winery. As a very fine part of the 2009 European Wine Bloggers Conference in Lisbon, Amorim and Lagoalva graciously offered an in-depth look at virtually every aspect of cork’s profound backstory. This is the substance of part 1. In part 2 I will recount a tour of the Amorim production facility in Coruche.
A word about our guide from Amorim, Carlos de Jesus, the Director of Marketing & Communications. Rarely have I met an individual with such a complete mastery of a subject. I knew we were in for educational experience when the first thing the gentleman said was “Ask any question you want. Make them as tough as you like. If you don’t ask the hard questions, I will. And I will answer them.” Carlos was no company flak, but a man deeply dedicated to the life and culture of cork in all its many dimensions. A truly brilliant fellow.
Diogo Campilho I am the winemaker for Lagoalva. I studied in Portugal for four years, and then I went to Australia where I worked for three years until I came back to Lagoalva in 2004. Lagoalva belongs to my family. It is a family estate. We have in total 6000 acres; some of them are together and then we have smaller pieces around.
Of the cork trees, we have 3000 acres. We have harvested bark here since 1932, quite a long time. We harvest all the cork every nine years. In those years there are only two years in which we don’t take bark. Yields per year are around 50,000 arrobas (an arroba is about 15 kilos). We use the arroba because it is the unit of measurement here.
About 25% of our bark is top quality; 50% is normal to average; the last 25% is not so good [but still usable]. With respect to TCA, that occurs mostly at the bottom of the tree. We don’t sell that part. We cut it off, a certain number of centimeters is removed. The bark is then placed on top of plastic sheets [tarps] for a time.
We have here a guy who will show you how we harvest from the tree; from that tree which is on the ground. He will demonstrate. We sell the bark that only we harvest. Why? Because our workers have been with us for ages and they know how to do it well! And for us it is important that it is harvested properly so as to not damage the tree. We work carefully to preserve them for as long as we can.
The first time the bark is harvested is after 25 years. We call it ‘virgin’. We don’t sell it. It is not of good quality. The second harvest we don’t sell either. It is only after 18 years, with the third harvest, do we begin selling the bark.
Carlos de Jesus You can never harvest everything. There is no mathematical formula but it is a function of the height of the tree and of the diameter of the trunk. That gives you the amount of cork that may be removed. By the time these guys come back to this tree in 9 years the tree is going to be bigger. They are going to be able to take a little bit more. So every cycle, every nine years, a little bit more will be taken as the oak reaches its maturity. But you never harvest 100%. That would be too much stress on the tree.
See how rough the bark is? This afternoon when we go to Coruche [one of Amorim’s cork processing centers] you will be able to see the planks of the third, fourth, and fifth etc. harvest. And you will be able to see how much smoother the bark becomes over the life of the cork oak. Subsequent harvests have a smoothing effect on the bark. But much of this will be too hard to compress.
One of the reasons why cork works so well in a bottle, and in flooring and shoes, for example, is that it compresses. In fact it is the world’s only natural solid that may be compressed on one end and not increase its size on the other end. That is the reason why it seals a bottle so well. So you want to maintain that elasticity as much as you can.
Visiting Blogger For the first and second harvest, is it possible to use the bark for other purposes?
Carlos de Jesus Yes, it is. There is flooring, for example. It does not require the same elasticity you need of a bottle cork. You can use it for insulation. This is a good example because it is a 100% natural product; there are no glues in it.
Visiting Blogger How do you store the bark until it goes to processing?
Diogo Campilho We sell it only after 21 days from when harvested. Why? Because of the humidity on the bark. We store the bark in stacks 2 meters high and 10 meters long.
Visitin Blogger You’re waiting 21 days so you’re selling on cork weight and not on water weight?
Carlos de Jesus Yes, basically. There is something I want to emphasize. When Diogo says that he puts the stacks onto plastic, not directly in contact with the soil, that is absolutely fundamental. About TCA, you cannot defeat anything measured in nanograms just by using curative measures. Everybody loves miracle cures. We all like to open the newspaper and find that ‘XYZ’ disease was cured.
We also need prevention. Prevention starts right here in the forest. So when Diogo cuts the lower end of the plank he is making my life easier. When he then keeps all those stacks from contact with the soil where you have all the precursors of TCA, he’s making life difficult for those precursors! So when we have to apply curative measures, which we still need to have, you’re not applying curative measures upon a huge departure base; but on a much lower departure base. It is one thing to deal with a big migraine, it is quite another to deal with the headache at its onset. But if you have a headache everyday, don’t take an aspirin everyday. (laughs) Go and find out why you have that headache!
Traditionally we didn’t talk [to the cork oak growers]. Our grandparents were playing a zero sum game. They wanted to sell as high I possible; I wanted to buy as low as possible. And we would meet every nine years around that zero sum game. But that is not how you establish confidence! That is not how you understand the other guy’s problems. They think it is very easy for us; we think it is very easy for them. But it is not! It is a very, very complex relationship, especially when you have more plastics and screw caps coming onto the market. I cannot deliver the quality that you guys demand [the wine drinking public] if he doesn’t know what I need.
So the amount of dialogue that we have today is completely different than what we had as little as ten years ago. That makes a big difference.
Diogo Campilho A few more things I want to show you. In the soil we make pH adjustments and we use the organic manure from the our more than 1000 cattle and 3000 sheep. We use no irrigation.
Visiting Blogger Do you prune the trees?
Diogo Campilho Yes, but only in the beginning. We remove the branches lower on the trunk and prefer the straighter limbs.
Visiting Blogger Why does the ground have to be kept so bare?
Carlos de Jesus So bare? It doesn’t have to be. It is their choice to do so. But you have to realize one thing. If you look around you will see you are looking at sand. If you take away the cork oaks there will be nothing here, not even this grass. This area is prone to desertification. The cork oak plays an effective role. Imagine this sandy soil in the Summer when it is 110 degrees fahrenheit out there and 70 degrees in the forest! Nothing would survive without the trees.
Visiting Blogger Are you saying that if the humans disappeared for 100 years this would all be desert?
Carlos de Jesus If the humans disappeared this would be a much better place for the animals. If the cork oak disappear this will be a much worse place for both animals and people. You can take people out of this world and nothing happens to the world. There are plenty of Hollywood films that tell you about that. (laughs) The point here is not people protecting the oaks as much as the oaks protecting people.
He owns the trees but he doesn’t own the trees. Because he cannot cut them down. If a tree is dead we have to ask for permission to cut it down. We need to give something back. And what the oaks demand is very little. They give a lot. To me one of the most important things that the oaks give is the ability to show the world that economic, social and environmental issues can co-exist. You do not have to choose one or the other. These guys have been around for decades and decades illustrating that you can have it all.
We are then shown a demonstration of how the bark is removed.
Diogo Campilho I want to explain one thing. Normally this kind of job is done to a living tree! I don’t know if you know that the harvesting is done in June. Why? Because that is when there is a good relationship between the humidity and the heat. It would be impossible to remove the cork from the tree now [Nov. 1st] through Spring. For each tree there are two guys working. So we have a total of nine couples, eighteen people, harvesting oak; and we have four women who pick up the planks immediately and put them on a tractor to be taken to the stacks. A good average per tree would be 45 kilos.
Carlos de Jesus The bark is now dry. If you were to touch the trunk immediately after a proper harvest it would be wet. Not with sap but with moisture. The sap runs inside, in the wood of the tree.
Diogo Campilho Over there you can see a tree with the number six written on it. That means it was last harvested in 2006. This tree has no number on it because it was harvested in 2009. So this is a cork tree that was harvested this last June.
I hope my great-grand children will still be able to harvest these trees.
Visiting Blogger Is this an average density of trees for a cork forest?
Carlos de Jesus It really depends. If your comparing to the rest of the Alentejo it is pretty much average. In some other areas they can be quite dense. Here it is about 60 trees per hectare.
Visiting Blogger Once the cork is harvested I am curious as to what you do with the waste after all products are made?
Carlos de Jesus Nothing is wasted, absolutely nothing. I’ll give you an example. The plant your going to visit this afternoon, 95% of it’s energy needs come from renewable sources. And that renewable source is essentially cork dust. So when the granules are so fine that nothing else can be made with them, we use them as fuel. Nothing is wasted. This is one of the things I like the most.
We pile back onto the bus and head for the grounds of the Quinta da Logoalva de Cima itself for a lunch. The dirt roads were rutted with tractor and truck ruts. In our full sized air-conditioned bus the way was slow. How strange to be straddling the generations of viticultural and cork agricultural practice, experiencing the whiplash of historical/modern moments in such a behemoth as was our bus. Its garish splashes of blue and white, its logo bigger than a man, all was very much out of place among the coffee brown of the oaks and the blond weeds.
We enjoyed a brilliant lunch. I am sure I speak for all of my colleagues in offering great thanks to Diogo de Campilho for his generosity.

Next stop: The Amorim cork processing facility AI Coruche.



6 Responses to ' The Natural Philosophy of Cork, A Green Business '

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  1. Robert Morey said,

    on November 23rd, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    Perhaps it’s too little, too late. Many people lost faith in cork in the 1990’s which, in turn, allowed screwcaps and synthetics to make significant in-roads. Why would wineries want to go back to cork if their current, non-cork closures are acceptable to the public? Without a huge groundswell from the public, I don’t see that happening.
    It is worth mentioning that, although cork is green, transporting it halfway across the planet isn’t. The carbon footprint on cork is typically much greater than that of screwcaps made in California.
    For my red wines, I still use corks, because of tradition, but always conduct my own trials due to the fact that there are still some disreputable companies on the market peddling bad corks. For whites, I now use screwcaps. So far, no complaints from any of our customers…

  2. Rob said,

    on November 23rd, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    I wonder if using screw caps has less of a carbon footprint (or overall environmental footprint) than shipping cork from Portugal. The bauxite to make the aluminum probably came from Australia, Africa or South America. And aluminum processing uses a vast amount of electricity. I would bet that if a full LCA was done, corks would still prove to be much more environmentally sustainable than screw caps, regardless of shipping. I believe Amorim has done one, or had one done, and it is available on their website somewhere.

  3. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on November 23rd, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Robert. Cork has experienced an increase in market share over the past few years. And Portugal is a bit less than ‘half-way across the planet’. Indeed, following the ‘carbon footprint’ argument to its logical conclusion, all tasting rooms would be shuttered tomorrow, wine tourism would end, all wine imports/exports would cease, and we’d be buying wines from markets only within walking distance. The cork vs. screwcap carbon footprint issue is perhaps the least of our worries.

  4. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on November 23rd, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Rob. Amorim has indeed published research on this matter. Here is a summation.


  5. on December 2nd, 2009 at 5:16 am

    Thank you for such an interesting article, as usual, Ken. Although I work for a competitor of Amorim, I appreciate any effort anyone makes in promoting natural cork and explaining the cork process.

  6. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on December 2nd, 2009 at 5:26 am

    You are very welcome, Anabela. I am familiar with your company, Cork Supply. And what I have said of Amorim may also be said of Cork Supply. Both companies work very hard on the preservation of a way of life, promote sustainable practices and are always refining quality control. The battle for cork is worth fighting! Keep up the good work.

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