You may already have seen this horrifying sight: a plastic stopper or -- gasp! -- a screwtop instead of a cork in what would otherwise be a lovely bottle of Bordeaux. It's worse than finding a hair in your soup. It could very well put you off your wine for a week. But I recently discovered that plastic corks damage more than the sensibilities or the palate -- they may also be endangering the unique, fragile economy and ecology of a section of the Iberian peninsula.
Among winemakers and wine aficionados, the scandal of "cork taint" -- which some say ruins one in 20 bottles of wine -- has led to the increasing use of plastic stoppers. Cork taint is a bit of a misnomer, since the contamination does not originate with the cork; instead, a common environmental pollutant may contaminate the cork, then be transferred to the wine. But the chemical can also appear in wines stoppered with plastic, in bottled water, and in other products.
If you ask me, plastic stoppers impart a harsh, chemical flavor to wine. Some pro-cork vintners refuse to use plastic stoppers because they claim the plastic impedes the aging process and occasionally imparts a rubber flavor to the wine. Furthermore, there is no universally acknowledged scientific evidence showing the extent of the cork taint problem or indicating how guilty natural corks really are; it may be that corks are being scapegoated in cases where a bottle simply contains a bad wine or was stored improperly.
The problem is bigger than just a spat between wine snobs. If plastic stoppers get much more of a foothold, thousands of farmers will be put out of business and an entire ecosystem could be destroyed in a matter of years.
The Montado -- the region where the Iberian peninsula's cork forests are found -- is among the very few places where cork oak grows. What's more, though, those plantations are one of the most perfect examples of sustainable and wildlife-friendly farming in the world. If a significant number of vintners switch to plastic, the commodity price of cork could plunge, and these farmers could be put out of business.
And if the cork oak forests fall into disuse, they will surely be cut down in favor of fast-growing, less sustainable wood harvesting projects like pine or eucalyptus, or for holiday condos and amusement parks. That would mean loss of habitat for rare birds like the imperial eagle and mammals like the Iberian lynx, and would be the final nail in the coffin of some of the last rural communities in Europe that survive through sustainable farming practices. Furthermore, the cork forests absorb a significant quantity of Europe's total greenhouse gas emissions; without them, the problem of smog on the continent will become even more dire.
Cork is also a truly sustainable crop. The cork is harvested once every nine years from each tree. The trees not only survive, but thrive through the process, which involves stripping off the bark and removing the cork layer beneath. Cork oaks live about 150 to 200 years. And natural cork is not only recyclable, it is biodegradable. Plastic corks, on the other hand, promise to pile up in landfills for generations.
Advocates of plastic corks often say that there is a shortage of cork, and that the consequent pressure on farmers has caused them to overstrip trees and produce substandard cork more prone to taint. But farmers and their advocates refute that claim: Not only are the Montados more than capable of meeting existing demand, they say there are hundreds of thousands of hectares of untapped cork oak forest in northern Africa just waiting for commercial harvesting.
Lastly, the plastic cork industry and their allies in the grocery industry are simply playing dirty. When British consumers began complaining to Safeway and to Marks & Spencer about the increase in plastic cork use, they received response letters that falsely
characterized traditional Portuguese cork farming practices as environmentally destructive, called Portuguese cork farmers "greedy," and falsely claimed that cork oaks must be cut down for the cork to be harvested.
The United Kingdom's own bird-advocacy group, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), is heading up a campaign to "Put a Stop to Plastic Corks." Find out more about it at the RSBP website.
Here's what you can do to help turn the tide:
- Don't buy wine corked with plastic stoppers.
- Tell your local grocery you're disappointed that it stocks plastic-stoppered wines.
- When possible, purchase wines bearing the "Cork Mark," which guarantees that the bottle is stoppered with sustainably grown cork.
- Visit Portugal's Naturlink website and get involved in its "Message in a Bottle" campaign, which launched last week on World Forest Day. For each click on the "campaign" button on that website, a wine bottle with a natural cork bound for export will be fitted with an "SOS" message to the consumer, explaining the plight of the cork forests, farmers, and wildlife.
Special thanks to the Forster Company for research support.