When François Dupin’s tongue meets a piece of cork during his last gulp of red wine, his drunken eyes look at the old bottle angrily. A 2008 vintage, it should have tasted amazing. Displeased he gazes at the bleached out cork that occasionally blurs in front of his big red nose.
“You stupid cork!”, he moans and morosely wants to toss it away, when the cork suddenly starts speaking.
“What do you mean, stupid cork? Do you even know what I have been through in my life?”
François stares at the cork puzzled.
“Yes, you, I am talking to you.”
Astounded, François squints towards his glass. How much did he drink? And then decides that it actually doesn’t matter.
“Do you even know what I have been through to keep that bottle of wine? And now you just corked it for me!!”, he slurs a bit indignantly.
The cork continues undeterred: “I have been in this world when your grapes had themselves hidden below the ground still!”
“How old are you?”, asks François and holds the cork in front of his screwed up eye, as if this could provide the answer.
“52 years”, the cork peeps proudly.
The old man unbelievingly puts his foot down as his cheese almost rolls off the table. “I don’t believe a single word you’ve said!”
“Well, it takes some time until I become what I am.”
“Fair enough, so tell me your story, ol’ cork.”, murmurs François, fishes a piece of cork out of his glass and refills himself.
“Well, let’s see – once I was the ultimate tree ring of a cork tree in Portugal, the coat of my mom you might say…”
“Portugal, hm?”, mumbles the French in disbelief.
“Of course Portugal! 50% of the world’s cork is produced in Portugal. Anyhow, as a cork tree I have lived in peace for 25 years. Eventually, a gatherer came with his axe and took my mama’s coat away. That’s what they do with cork trees when they turn 25. They call it “virgin cork”. It is very light and doesn’t have a great density. This lower quality is good for floors, for instance. Thereafter, every 9 years a gatherer comes to visit us and takes another coat. I – the cork – derive from the third generation, 43 years old at this time. Portuguese people declare every coat from the third generation forward amadia (engl.: “cork”) quality.
My quality – meaning my consistency – is so good by now that I can basically become everything: A wine cork, a shoe, a bag, even an umbrella!
“But did the cork tree survive?”, François asks with a breathy voice.
“Yes, sure! That’s why cork is so great. As long as the harvest happens only every 9 years, the tree doesn’t get damaged. We cork trees can live 250-300 years! One also harvests the coat only between May and August in Portugal, that’s when it is rubbery due to the warm weather and doesn’t burst.
“And how does the bark become a cork like you are??”
“The bark coats are brought to a factory and have to rest there for another 4 months first. They then get boiled on 100 degrees heat. Afterwards, we are clean and free of insects. We also get pressed into even more dense layers. There are 6 different qualities of cork!
High-quality amadia cork gets punched along the fibre out of the pressed layer
French people pay the most for us, that’s why they get the high-value amadia corks that can breath through their fibres! A cork like this can cost up to 3-4 euros each!
Cheaper wines cannot afford that. Furthermore, cork granules are used, sticking together with glue. And this is what you can taste sometimes when it tastes ‘woody’ and not in a nice way. You shouldn’t have kept me for longer than 8 years! It’s normal that I start crumbling and get a cork taint!”, says the cork crudely.
“Sorry..”, says François remorsefully.
“Cork that breathes is good for wine but bad for everything that consists of carbonic acid!”, the cork continues, “Drinks like champagne shouldn’t breathe, glued granules cork is used so it can’t do so. But 2 disks of fibrous amadia are glued to the bottom of the champagne cork. This is done so the champagne liquid will never touch the glue. With the amadia fibres, a bottle can be kept for 40 years without actually getting corked. Clever, isn’t it?”
“But is it possible that a cork is bad every once in a while? Because of a sick tree, for example?”
“Yes, for sure, we can get sick. Especially insects can get to us. There are machines designed for that reason. They can detect dark spots of a funghus, for example, and sort us out. Indeed, there are also darker spots that occur within us naturally. In the end, only a human hand can help eliminate the bad guys.”
François takes a big sip and becomes pensive. “You mentioned earlier you could have become a bag as well?”
“Yes! Have you never seen this? That’s a big trend at the moment. It is sustainable as it is 100% recycable. We cure like leather and 7% of cork has such a good amadia quality that it even feels like leather! There are even designers that pay for particular colours so only they can use us for their fashion. We are available in almost every color variation!”
As François is eating the last of his diced cheeses another question gets on the tip of his tongue: “But how do I recognize now if a cork or a bag has a good quality or not?”
“That’s a good question. You can recognize a good cork having a great density and not purley consisting of granules. It will be heavier than the cheaper variants. A good bag will have bigger square patterns as the cork will be split along the whole fibres and won’t be glued together instead. But you should also consider that most of the times, behind the cork there will be a layer of some textile in order to make us stable. The ‘cork skin’ – a very thinly cut amadia cork layer – would crumble down otherwise. By the way, you can also clean those bags very easily, with water and soap. That’s another advantage as I think.”, the cork finishes his speech.
“That’s incrédible!”, François calls out bashing both his hands on the table when he realizes that his wife has been watching him shaking her head for a while already.
I immediately fell in love with the world of cork. Less because of the wine corks, all the more because of the bags (I am a woman, I love bags) and all the other great things that they make out of it in Portugal. The most salient thing about cork is its sustainability in production, its breathability, the robustness, the insulation capacity and the flexibility of this material. I was so excited about my bag in Portugal that I wrote an email to the company Novaçortica (Portuguese for “New cork”). Shortly afterwards, I would accompany Katarina, a woman that has been working in the 1935 founded family business. Ever since I have been looking at cork with different eyes… 😀
Learn more about Portugal by clicking on the link: Lisbon and the Heart of Portugal