Cork oak cultivation in Portugal 2016, forming habitat for rare and threatened species. This tree shows bark regrowth (below), after sustainable harvesting.
Cork Oak plantations tend to resemble pleasant woodlands, without the regimentation of, say, pine plantations destined for the timber industry. They support diverse ecosystems, happily sharing their environment with many other tree species, including other Oaks, Stone Pines, and wild Olives, in addition to a multitude of plant, insect, bird, reptile, and animal species. Also finding refuge in the forests are several highly endangered species, particularly the Iberian Lynx, the world’s most endangered feline, and the Spanish Imperial Eagle, of which only 130 pairs remain.
In addition to this remarkable environmental friendliness, the Cork Oak has enabled farmers to establish a unique system of mixed farming incorporating trees, animals and crops. Cork Oak acorns provide animal feed; their branches provide shade for the animals in the heat of summer; leaf litter creates humus for soil enrichment and conservation of water, while the more open areas of forest can be utilized for grazing and crop growth.
And after all these favourable points are taken into account, the Cork Oak has yet another environmentally friendly feature to offer: CO2 is one of the main substances utilized by the tree to regenerate bark after harvesting. A harvested tree will store up to five times the amount of CO2 than a tree which is not harvested. It is estimated that Cork Oak forests account for over 10,000,000 tonnes of CO2 absorption per annum.
Cork Oaks are fully protected in Portugal, the first laws being passed in the early thirteenth century. It is illegal to cut down or remove them, living or dead, without a special Government permit.
Cork has been used as bottle closures since the times of Ancient Greece and Rome, and the trees revered as symbols of liberty and honour. Commercial production began in Portugal over three hundred years ago, and today, the European cork industry produces over 300,000 tonnes of cork per annum, of which 15% is utilized for the manufacture of wine closures. While this may not seem a huge proportion of total production, over 66% of the industry’s revenue is generated from this sector.
Clearly, the increasingly popular “screw-top” wine closures will have a considerable impact on the industry, and in several countries Cork Oak forestation has started to decline.
In Portugal, however, the opposite appears to be the case. Recognising the value of a sustainable and renewable timber product, a properly managed industry, and the benefits Cork forestations bestow on the environment, Portugal is taking steps to create new areas of demand for their product, fully protecting existing forestation, and gradually expanding areas of planting, with new forestation increasing at present by approximately 4% per annum.
It can only be hoped that the answer to the question, “What will become of the Wine Cork Industry?” is that, as the demand for cork wine closures falls, so the demand for an increasing diversification of cork products will grow, and while the beautiful Quercus suber plantations of southern Europe may not be able to save the planet entirely on their own, that they will nonetheless contribute significantly to Mother Earth’s ultimate well-being.