Cork: Noble, Age-Old Guardian or Ancestor Needing Improvement?
It seems like at least one in every three conversations I have with people in the wine trade, whatever the ostensible reason for the chat was, ends up discussing cork and its alternatives. With more than four billion bottles domestically purchased last year, you’d think this would be a settled issue, but, alas, the inverse is true: the more wine we make and sell, the more options of bottle enclosures we have, not less, and some packaging solutions don’t even involve bottles or enclosures as we normally think of them at all!
Cork for an enclosure rose naturally enough given it’s the bark of different species of oak trees, and oak is one of the traditional woods for barrel staves, so it makes sense to get the most out of what’s already being used; farmers are well known for frugality and lack of waste. What is not so well known is that it takes almost three decades of growth and several bark harvests, separated by seven years or more, before the first true harvesting of premium cork-level material is possible. Cork is one hundred percent natural, but it’s long lag time makes it less than ideal in today’s global, accelerated wine world.
Thus have evolved a number of alternatives to the pure, grade one cork, which, not incidentally, can run most of a dollar each even when purchasing large volumes. The simplest of these other options involve different forms of the same natural cork but in combination with various stabilizers to allow smaller pieces of cork to be formed into the standard “wine cork” shape. Known as technical or agglomerated corks, these provide an affordable solution which gives most of the same oxygen transmission and enclosure performance at a much more affordable cost.
A middle ground between these two comes by way of the sparklng wine producer, whose corks require a special shape and performance because of the extra pressure from bottle fermentation; their most common cork uses two disks of natural cork on the “stalk” of the mushroom with agglomerated technical cork making up the “cap” of the remainder. The still wine’s “twin top” does the same thing, but with a disk on both ends and technical cork sandwiched between. Maintaining the shape but substituting alternate materials entirely are a vast range of wholely artificial extruded “corks” made of various food grade plastics and silicons.
Moving away from a wine cork shape altogether takes us to the twist top, more formally known as the Stelvin enclosure; a liner can be employed to precisely control the oxygen transmission rate, but there is no head-turning thunk of the pulled cork. There is also the “Zork,” which combines artificial materials with an unwrapping process, and glass stoppers, which work best as a cork stopper replacement except for one thing: the O-ring necessary to mate the glass stopper with the glass bottle is the crucial element in how effective the stopper is.
As you can see, while the common wisdom is that once the grapes are in and the aging in barrel is done all the problems are over, the reality is that until the wine is in your mouth, there are decisions to make and potential problems to avoid every step along the way. No enclosure solves all the problems, and the best option, the traditional all-cork cork, is not inexpensive; there are lots of more affordable alternatives, but each lacks something, making it less than ideal as a replacement. Keep that in mnd the next time you reach for your opener and enjoy!