I have a confession to make. There is one life skill that I have yet to learn, and it’s especially embarrassing because we’re in Italy and my incompetence is juxtaposed with the expertise of every Italian server we meet. But like filing taxes, properly tying a tie, or parallel parking, it’s one of those things that everyone is expected to know, but no one actually sits you down and tells you how to do it. Okay. Here it goes.
I have been 21 years old for over 7 months and have yet to successfully open a bottle of wine all by myself. Those corks get the best of me every time!
Naturally, when we stumbled upon a lone cork oak tree in the Papal Gardens of Castel Gandolfo, I immediately felt ashamed. The tree itself doesn’t look like much - a wrinkled, shrivelled up version of its cousins, like an oak tree got left in the bathtub too long and got all prune-y. That’s when Dr. Lombardini told us about its secret weapon. The cork oak is the only tree that can survive after being entirely stripped of its bark. I had to admit, I admired the little guy’s resilience and was curious to know how this was possible.
Quercus suber, commonly referred to as the cork oak for its use in wine bottle stoppers, is native to southwest Europe and northwest Africa. It has been harvested for thousands of years, namely by the Romans, who discovered that its bark would float and proceeded to use it to make sandals and buoys for fishing nets. It is a valuable commodity, not only for the wine industry, but for two endangered species who call it home. In North Africa, cork oak forests are home to the Barbary macaque, while forests in Spain and Portugal provide a habitat for the Iberian lynx - the most critically threatened feline in the world. Additionally, the tree’s acorns are used to feed livestock. In fact, cork oak trees are so important that cork forests are protected by the European Union, making it illegal in many countries to cut the trees down except to eliminate older, unproductive trees.
The process of harvesting bark from the trees requires trained human labor to gently remove the product without harming the tree. It is done entirely by hand, with multiple people using small axes on each tree to peel off the outer bark, leaving a thin layer behind to protect the trunk. This process begins when the tree is 25 years old and can be repeated every 9-12 years as the tree regenerates its bark. A single tree can be harvested up to 16 times in its lifetime to make shoes, fishing rod grips, bulletin boards, flooring, and of course wine corks. Almost all cork products can be recycled, making it an extremely environmentally friendly industry. These trees also use an excess of carbon when regenerating their bark; cork forests account for over 10 million tons of carbon dioxide absorption each year.
With this in mind, I will get past my personal vendetta with wine corks and continue to purchase cork products. I love that something as simple as choosing to buy wine bottles stoppered with cork rather than glass or plastic can support the families who grow the trees and the animals that make their home in these forests.