One of the greatest inventions of all time, oenophiles will surely agree, is the innovative use of natural cork as a stopper for wine bottles. Cork oak trees are limited in population, but are harvested with great care in the warm Mediterranean climates of Spain and Portugal.
The 3,000-year-old practice of cork harvesting is practiced by farming companies such as Portugal's Fruticor, a family run business that has been tending the trees for four generations. The Forest Stewardship Council-certified company oversees 300,000 cork oak trees that are carefully cultivated both to provide cork for 13 billion to 16 billion bottles per year and to create an essential habitat for the Iberian lynx, imperial eagle and other rare species. As a sustainable resource with economic benefits, natural cork seems to be the ideal source for ensuring that precious wines are allowed to age.
But there are other wine-stopper options, such as plastic and glass. Are they eco-friendlier than the beloved cylindrical cork? Well, when the glass is made from recycled bottles and the plastic is the byproduct of recycled bags or tires, it certainly puts them in a green category. Numerous companies create rubber stoppers that become effective when applied with a wine-saver vacuum pump that draws out excess air and keeps the vintage from going stale. But do these options provide the same biodiverse benefits as cork? Not when you consider the aforementioned benefits to animals and plant life that occurs from cork harvesting.
Still, many have tried to match the eco-friendly value of cork: A sea-stones wine-bottle stopper, available through 3rliving.com, is metal and capped with a hand-picked New England sea stone (retrieved from local rivers and beaches with permission) and replaced with another stone (purchased from a quarry) that will presumably become similarly smooth after years of rushing waters sculpt its shape. A lovely idea, but the stone is merely an ornament on the stopper — which is made with metal.
Numerous artists use recycled items to create whimsical pieces of art on their cork stoppers — Richard Kolb uses recycled spoons and cork; Guenter Scholz creates his with recycled steel and copper trim — but the actual stopper component is still cork.
Of course, there's always the option of using a screw cap, which has become increasingly popular to companies wishing to avoid the possibility of cork mold and the high cost of importing cork — but unless the metal used to create the cap is recycled and also offers some sort of sustainability benefit in its use, it still doesn't match the beauty of cork. Plus, there's the long-held stigma — outside of Australia and New Zealand — that only cheap wines use screw tops.
Let's face it: Sometimes, in our zeal to create a better wheel, we realize we've already created the optimal version. So next time you're out wine shopping, opt for a cork-stopped wine — the Iberian lynx will be ever so grateful.
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