If you are like me and a nice glass of wine is one of your favorite hobbies, then you have almost certainly held a stopper made from Portuguese cork. In fact, at least half of the cork produced in the world comes from Portugal, and the region of Alentejo specifically.
I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Andreia Sousa of Herdade do Passareiro, a 570-acre cork farm in Alentejo, Portugal. Andreia’s passion and pride for the work she does was easy to hear, even over the phone. Andreia says she always wanted to work in agriculture. When I asked what drew her to a career in farming, she said, “I was born like this. My heart was born in farming. My heart was born connected to wildlife and connected to plant lifecycles. People call it farming but really, it is everything.”
Livestock in the cork forest at Herdade do Passereiro.
Having spent all my adult life selling and drinking wine, I have to admit that going into this interview I knew surprisingly little about cork and cork farming. I knew what you probably know; cork is an incredible resource with what seems like endless uses. Andreia told me about the life cycle of the cork tree, the history of the trees themselves and the process where raw cork is converted to its usable form (hint – no chemicals). I started to scratch the surface of a subject I now know will hold a piece of my curiosity forever. Cork oaks and their 200 to 300-year life span are an ecological marvel.
Portugal, where Andreia lives, is the leading producer of cork in the world. Most of that cork is used for sealing wine, but it is also used for shoes, purses, flooring, yoga mats, and insulation. Knowing what a massive and far reaching industry cork is, I was really surprised to learn how sustainable both the product and its production are. I assumed that anyone producing such a large quantity of anything would necessarily take shortcuts and make ecological sacrifices in the name of mass production. After speaking with Andreia, I now realize the opposite is true; this is an industry that needs to be recognized and valued by wine drinkers (by everyone) for its deeply impactful ecological benefits and its slow, sustainable approach to agriculture.
Cork bark mid-harvest at Herdade do Passareiro.
Cork oak grows well in dry Mediterranean climates. The trees use the cork bark that grows on them to preserve the little water they can get in the dry areas where they live. Cork oaks are given credit for a variety of ecological benefits. For starters, they help the fight against climate change; these large trees suck the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and retain it in their wood. They also don’t need to be cut down to harvest their cork. Cork is harvested from the bark of the trees, an entirely manual process where the bark is stripped only once every 10 years. The tree produces no waste as their trimmed branches are used to produce vegetable charcoal. Cork forests are also a home to a broad range of biodiversity; the forest’s natural ecological systems include wild herbs, bushes and trees, creating homes for grouses, foxes, weasels, eagles and little birds. Finally, cork is still hand harvested by man, a process which is unbelievable to watch and requires incredible skill. As Andreia says, “They are the real artists.”
Cork bark being harvested at Herdade do Passareiro.
Since cork trees can live for 200 to 300 years, their life span stretches over the generations of farmers who care for them. Andreia worries that because the tree’s life is so much greater than our own, we will not be able to understand how climate change might be affecting these trees until it’s too late. Although they are accustomed to receiving little water, they are still getting less now than they did 100 years ago. Some farmers have adapted and implemented irrigation systems, but it is still certain that these trees are under more stress than they used to be.
Want to do your part in preserving these incredible forests? It's an easy task: drink wine. Drink wine that is sealed with cork stoppers.