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Cork v. Plastic: The battle wages on

Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

It used to be that any fine wine was always bottled with cork. Cork allowed it to age and mature in an aromatically and gastronomically pleasing way. But that has been changing due to an aggressive campaign by synthetic corks and aluminum screw top closures to replace cork on wine bottles with synthetic. Why, even traditional glass bottles are being replaced at some wineries by screw caps, boxes and packaging that minimize shipping weight, and thus supposedly increase profits to the producer.

The problem with all this is that cork is a sustainably harvested and renewable resource that provides income for many small family-owned tree plantations in Portugal, Spain, Morocco, and even Italy. It is also associated with fine wine and the aging of fine wine to a degree that screw caps and plastic cannot replace.

About 90 percent of the annual 340,000 ton cork production comes from Portugal (52 percent), Spain (32 percent), and Italy (6 percent). Significant amounts are also produced in Morocco. Cork is sustainably harvested about every 9 years from a tree’s bark that has matured to about 25 years-old. The harvest will last the life cycle of the tree, which is about 200 years.

But there are also side-benefits that accrue such as the sequestration of carbon dioxide from the air that we breathe as well as the protected habitat of countless species that may now face an elevated “endangered” status as a result of the declining market for cork. A PriceWaterhouseCoopers study determined that corks are the most sustainable wine closure. And another study showed that cork resulted in 8 grams of greenhouse gas emissions, compared to 16 for a synthetic cork. Recycled aluminum screw caps weighed in at 52 grams for a 35 percent recycled aluminum screw cap.

From a sustainable and perhaps even a gastronomical impact, cork is superior. The issue has shades of the old paper v. plastic debate of the 90’s.