More and more sustainably produced wines are being made available across the country, with labels such as "organic," "100% organic" and "biodynamic" making their way onto wine shelves. (Read a summary of Choosing Sustainable Wines to help sort through these options.) Many consumers are not as aware of the small obstacle that holds wine safely in its glass home — the cork; or, as is common these days, the synthetic cork made of plastic compounds or the aluminum screw cap. Choosing a natural wine cork stopper, however, has a much larger environmental impact than its small size may lead you to believe.
The Cork Forest Conservation Alliance is dedicated to educating wine drinkers on the ecological and social importance of choosing a real cork stopper. Last summer, thanks in large part to the Alliance, I was able to witness the cork harvest in Portugal firsthand, as well as tour several plants that turn the cork oak bark into wine stoppers, cork flooring and more. The montados (cork oak forests), throughout Spain and Portugal support a wide range of plant and animal species, including honeybees, herbal plants, and the well-known Black Iberian pigs that feast on the oak trees' acorns. Workers (often families who have owned the land for generations) harvest by hand the outer layer of bark from the oak trees, leaving the vital cambium intact. In general, a tree's bark is only harvested once every nine years. The bark that I witnessed being harvested is taken to zero-waste facilities where it is transformed into myriad products, from wine stoppers to wall insulation.
In short, natural cork wine stoppers are an environmentally sound choice, especially when compared with the manufacturing of plastic and mining of aluminum that is required to produce the synthetic options. Patrick Spencer, director of the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance, explains in more detail the sustainability of the cork harvest and production process in this TEDxSalem presentation:
Cork is not only used for wine stoppers. It has also been integrated into eco-friendly flooring options. Learn more about the ins and outs of cork flooring in the articles below.
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