If anyone ever told you corks don’t grow on trees, they’re mistaken. The truth is, the stuff that preserves your favorite wine is actually thick, grey oak tree bark!
Cork is made of the dead cells on the surface of the tree. It comes from the hearty evergreen, quercus suber, lovingly dubbed the cork oak for bringing you bottle stoppers, as well as flooring, bulletin and dart boards and the heel on your best pair of summer wedges. It’s been a valued natural resource for ages, used by the Ancient Greeks and discovered in Egyptian tombs.
Cork has sustained popularity due to its elasticity and the fact that it’s impermeable to liquid and gas. In fact, it’s pretty much the Superman of the materials world: fireproof, termite-proof and rot resistant.
Cork must be harvested, much like our grapes. The trees stand up to 75 feet tall and are stripped of their outer bark once they reach 25 years old. Lucky for us, the trees regenerate bark every 9 years or so. They’re unharmed after the harvest…think of a sheep that has just been sheered. A little chilly, maybe, but unscathed.
Each cork oak can live between 150-200 years and yield more than 16 harvests! They grow primarily in southwestern Europe and northwestern Africa and to thrive, they need what we all need when we’re on vacation: lots of sunshine, very little rainfall and high humidity. Portugal is well known as the global leader of cork production, responsible for 50 percent of the world’s harvested cork. But if you ever visit, leave your chainsaw at home: it’s illegal to cut down a sacred cork oak in Portugal.
Once the bark is stripped, it’s stacked and cured for a few weeks. It’s then boiled and the outer layer is removed, making it softer and easy to work with. The bark is dried and cured once more, this time in dark cellars. Holes are punched from a slab of cork, and voila! The standard wine cork is born.
Now go, impress your friends with your new knowledge! We guarantee you’ll look a little closer next time you pop open a bottle.