Monday, February 16, 2009

Getting Corked

What do pirates do with vintners that make cheap wine? Make them walk the plonk!!!

For many couples in north central Alberta, a romantic dinner is accompanied with a favorite bottle of wine. A decade ago in finer establishments, before the vintage was poured, the waiter would bring the cork from the newly opened flask for the clients close inspection. While such outings may offer a touch of nostalgia, it may come as a surprise that nowadays fewer than 40% of all stoppers are made from cork.

The primary reason for the switch from natural to synthetic plugs is due to the $250 million annual loss to the wine commerce due to poor-quality natural corks. According to industry experts, the culprit is trichloroanisole (TCA) which imparts an off-flavour that can be detected in concentrations as small as two parts per trillion. Although just 6% of high quality natural corks are found to be tainted with TCA, when multiplied by the millions of litres of fermented grapes that are produced annually, the damage is staggering.

Unfortunately, the reduction of natural cork usage is actually detrimental to the cork forests. Unlike many other forest products, cork production does not actually harm the tree. The cork grows as the bark on the cork oak tree Quercus suber which is native to the Mediterranean region of Europe. Cork trees are usually 25 years old before the cork is thick enough to be harvested initially, with additional bark removal occurring every 10 years or so for the entire 200 year life of the tree. With cork sales no longer paying the bills, many groves have replaced with other revenue generating crops.

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