A new bottle of wine is opened with anticipation – the satisfying pop of the cork, the release of fragrance, the pour and swirl of wine in a glass. Often, the cork is set aside, discarded, and forgotten. But the cork is an important piece of the winemaking process – without it we risk spoilage and spillage.
And while they are one of the last and quickest steps in the bottling process, wine corks are many years in the making.
The use of cork as a bottle stopper is not a new invention. Egyptian tombs dating back thousands of years have been found with cork-stoppered bottles inside. And it has remained the industry standard material for sealing wine bottles globally for the last 400 years.
Cork is light-weight, naturally impermeable to liquid and gas, fire retardant and hypoallergenic.
The elastic property of cork allows it to fit tightly in the bottle; and yet oxygen can still pass through on a minuscule scale – allowing the wine to age perfectly.
Bark to Bottle
Quercus suber trees (cork trees) are found in Mediterranean locales such as Spain and Portugal. The trees reach maturity after roughly 25 years and harvesting can begin. Specially trained and skillful harvesting crews hand-strip the bark using axes; a process that is sustainable and does not harm the tree. The bark will take about nine years to regrow and can then be harvested again – with an average lifespan of 150-250 years, a cork tree can provide nearly 12 harvests of cork.
Once harvested, the bark is cured outdoors for months and then transferred to a processing facility to be boiled for cleaning and softening for a minimum of six months. Measures are taken to ensure the planks of cork wood remain free of fungus, dust and volatile compounds such as TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole). The low-quality bark will be stripped away, while the remaining planks will be stored in a humidity-controlled space until it is time to be sorted, cut into workable strips and either hand-punched or machine-punched into corks.
The Final Touch
Winemakers have many choices when it comes to the final piece of the bottling process. They must decide which color or “wash” to go with and the length, grade, and qualities of the cork used to bottle their wine. If branding the corks, there are choices between ink vs. fire vs. laser etching designs and taking into account the time for drying, coating, and quality control.
At Amlés, our corks are made through the reputable company, Amorim, to ensure sustainability. We use 54mm x 24mm size with a “light wash” color. The grade is the highest possible, and it is 100% natural cork.
Every year, roughly 13 billion wine corks are produced. The entire process involves a great deal of time, energy, and thought – and sustainable practices. It is a wonderful example of a collaboration between responsible stewards and nature for fine winemaking.