History of Cork
How many times have you opened a bottle of wine, sniffed the cork, and
promptly thrown it out? Just what is that thing made of, and why is it
used instead of rubber or screwcaps or something else? Read and learn!
Cork comes from the cork tree, or Quercus Suber. This is a
species of oak that grows in Spain and Portugal. Cork trees are
very carefully cared for - the older the tree, the more cork it produces.
Some trees grow to be 170 years old.
Cork naturally grows to form 14-sided cells in the bark. Strips are
carefully removed (it's in their best interest to keep the tree healthy!)
and dried in strips for 6 months. Next the strips are boiled for 90
minutes, then again dry for 3 weeks. Finally, the cork is cut into
the shapes you know. Only 40% of this final cut ends up being usable.
Cork must be stored carefully until it is used by the winery.
The whole reason cork is used is to prevent oxygen from getting to,
and spoiling, the wine. Cork was known back in Greece and Rome to have
this great property and for having that great 'sealing property'.
In medieval times they tried to use wood in their sacks and pottery urns.
When they developed glass bottles in the 17th century, wood did not work
any more as a stopper. Cork was rediscovered and used ever since.
The first corks were tapered to fit into the bottles more easily. With
more modern packing systems, they now have straight sides. Some now
have plastic tops as well. Champagne corks actually start out with
straight sides, and only develop that "mushroom" shape after being
jammed into the bottles. They are not solid cork - to save money, there
are disks of cork separated by a "cork mash".
You can tell several things from a cork. Many are marked with the place
the cork was made, as well as the winery the wine came from. The
narrower and more misshapen the cork, the longer the cork has been in
the bottle. Sometimes you will see small crystals around the cork -
this is not broken glass, but merely tartrates, a harmless substance
sometimes found in wine.
"Real" cork can sometimes develop a mold, and lead to 'corking' of the wine.
This sad state makes the wine completely undrinkable. To combat this, a number
of wineries are turning to synthetic corks that have the wonderful sealing
properties of real cork, but do not harbor molds.
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