Next time you pop a bottle of wine, take a moment to consider that small piece of wood before taking your first sip. Read on and discover the fascinating world of wine corks!
There’s almost nothing more satisfying than the sound of a cork popping when opening a bottle of wine. Well, perhaps actually drinking the wine is more satisfying. Either way, wine corks are often an integral part of the overall wine experience.
Cork has been around for a long time. It’s been found in ancient Egyptian tombs dating back thousands of years, and historians are still debating who first began using the material as a wine stopper. Many attribute its use to a 17th-century monk, Dom Pérignon, but we may never know for sure. No matter what, wine corks have a surprisingly dense past.
While you can now find bottles with screw caps, there’s more to the original wine cork than just nostalgia. Yes, they have historical significance in the world of wine, but there’s also some important science behind them as well. That’s why we’re dedicating this week to that all-important piece of cork. Read on and discover the fascinating world of wine corks!
What Are Wine Corks?
Corks are the small, porous pieces of wood used to seal bottles of wine. The End.
Ok, admittedly, there’s a bit more to the story than that.
Corks are harvested from specific trees that are mainly found in two areas of the world–the Mediterranean and Northwest Africa. What’s really fascinating is that cork farming is one of the most sustainable types of farming in the world.
Cork is harvested by removing the thick, outermost layer of bark. While it sounds like that would be damaging, it actually breaks away fairly easily and the tree quickly regenerates new bark. This process is usually done by hand to avoid damage. Plus, these trees are only harvested every nine to twelve years, and a tree must reach a certain age before it’s first harvested. Careful planning by farmers who have mastered their craft has led to healthy, sustainable cork groves.
The planks of cork are then boiled, graded, cut into workable pieces, and then the wine corks we know and love are punched out by hand or machine. Sometimes the corks go through additional processing, but that’s pretty much the gist of it! The remaining material can be ground up and used for other materials, and even after the cork has been used in a wine bottle, it’s still recyclable.
Why Do Sommeliers Present the Wine Cork?
When ordering a bottle of wine at a fine dining establishment, the sommelier will often present the customer with the wine cork. This may seem like a strange quirk, but there’s actually a good reason for this.
High-end corks are usually punched out of the corkboard by hand. However, there are corks made from composite cork created by grinding up the residual material.
So, when a sommelier presents the wine cork to you, they’re doing it for two reasons. The first reason they’re doing this is to show you that the cork matches the brand. That’s how you know you’re getting the exact bottle you requested. The other reason is so you can admire the hard work of the winemaker. A high-quality cork is an indicator of high-quality wine (this isn’t always the case, but it’s true more often than not).
When looking at the cork, here are a few tips. If you see signs of sediment on the cork, it means an aged wine was correctly stored. However, if the cork is completely saturated, it might mean the cork dried out and absorbed too much wine.
Why Are Wine Corks Important?
You might be wondering WHY wine corks are so important? Honestly, that’s a good question.
The bark from cork trees is particularly porous. It has a honeycomb of air pockets that make it both fire-resistant and reasonably buoyant. It’s these properties that help to create watertight seals for wine that still allow small amounts of air to move in and out of the bottle.
If you’ve been with us for a while, you know that oxygen plays a major role when it comes to aging wine. Well, the tiny amount of air that can move through a wine cork allows both the flavor and scent molecules to mature and develop more complexity over time. That’s why seeing an older wine made with high-end cork is a good thing. It means that the wine has been able to breathe correctly while aging.
However, you can still find high-quality wines that don’t use cork at all.
What About Cork-Alternatives?
What about cork-alternative options? Can a wine still breathe with a metal screw cap? Are they as biodegradable as cork? What about corks made with synthetic materials? Well, while we’d love to say that one option is absolutely the BEST…there are pros and cons to each option.
Screw caps are convenient when you don’t have a bottle opener and they’re less expensive than cork (most cork-alternatives are less expensive). Plus, while they’re often associated with less expensive wine, that’s not always the case. Today’s technology has allowed for the creation of screw caps with strategic levels of “oxygen ingress.” That means a certain amount of oxygen can still move in and out of the bottle.
Some screw caps are recyclable, but some synthetic corks are made with non-renewable resources. Plus, while some synthetic corks may be recyclable, they aren’t biodegradable. Also, synthetic corks don’t breathe and, therefore, aren’t good for wines that need to age.
If it weren’t for climate change, the cork industry could probably continue without too many sustainability issues. However, global warming means farmers must always be on the lookout for changes that could impact their cork harvests (rising temperatures, changes to the growing season, etc.).
Which Wine Stopper Will Prevail?
Bottom line? There’s no perfect answer. While many might think the wine industry is staunchly against modern innovation, that’s not necessarily true. And there’s no greater example than wine stoppers. Some vintners may choose to stick with the classic wooden cork, but others may adopt more cost-effective options that do the trick just as well. And honestly, so long as we still get to enjoy delicious wine made by winemakers who’ve mastered their craft, we don’t have a preference.
We hope you found this information as fascinating as we did! Hit us up on Instagram and let us know what you think, and don’t forget to follow us for all the latest updates. And, this should go without saying, don’t forget to stock up on all your favorite bottles of wine 😉