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Many would agree that a cork is not the ideal wine stopper. It can be difficult to extract, it sometimes leaves bits of debris floating about in the wine, and it is the prime cause of the most common of wine faults - the spoiled condition known as “corked,” caused by chlorine contamination during manufacture. So why, despite metal and plastic proving to be more effective, do winemakers still use it?
For one very good reason - cork is so closely associated with fine wine that no one cares or dares to replace it. Would you buy Château Latour with a plastic bung? Tradition is so entwined with the experience of wine that we’re willing to forego convenience and better sense for the ritual. People have been drinking wine from cork-stoppered bottles since the 17th century. Cork was what allowed 18th century winemakers to begin making wines for long-term aging instead of immediate drinking.
There are also sensory reasons. Wine somehow just doesn’t taste as it should without our first being serenaded by that distinctive sound of the cork “popping” from the bottle. And what would we do if we didn’t have a freshly-pulled cork to twist and turn and push and pinch while we ruminate on the finer points of color, aroma and taste? It just wouldn’t be the same.
Certainly, tradition isn’t reason enough to sacrifice a dwindling resource, but the little-known fact is that Quercus Suber, the cork tree, is a species of oak with bark so thick and resistant that it can be stripped without harming the tree; and Portuguese law (Portugal is the source of most wine corks) now allows a cork tree to be stripped only once every nine years, a practice that has improved its lifespan to close on 200 years.