Tempio Pausania’s experimental cork oak stand is the first in the world to operate according to methods established and recognized globally. Experts scrutinize every step, right up to the very last phase before the corking itself. Since the 1990s, cork manufacturers have been training specialists in machine repair and raw material control in order to guarantee perfection. Investment in research has been growing and is based on experimental analyses that begin in the forests. Maria Elena Madau, head of research for Martinese, a manufacturer in Calangianus since 1975, tells us, “Our approach is based on a reverse path. To attain excellent quality we had to go back to the start, the woods. We can get a good final product only if we start with good raw material.” She continues, “We invested a great deal in the laboratory as well, we carry out analysis of every kind, sensory and instrumental, to be sure that no contamination is present.” Nino Scampuddu, from the Molinas cork company, the largest in Sardinia, also underlines the enormous steps taken to assure quality. A cork expert and a wine lover, he challenged us with this question: “How many wines that win your Tre Bicchieri awards, the wines synonymous with Italian excellence, have cork stoppers?” The answer is 95%, a number that speaks for itself. Despite constant research, the principal problem with corks has not been totally eliminated, so-called ‘cork taint’. The defect is caused by a fungus that develops during the growing phase of the plant – 2,4,6 trichloroanisole (TCA) – and confers an unmistakeable odor that totally undermines the quality of the wine. According to recent figures, a maximum of 2% of corks present this problem, and cork stoppers are still considered the closure of choice for the world’s great wines. Decanter, a top British wine magazine, seems to agree, and recently dedicated an editorial to corks entitled, “In cork we trust.” In Sardinia, a classic toast translates to: “ Health, wheat, and cork stoppers!” (“Salude, trigu e tappu de ortigu!”) The sound of a cork popping is the sound of celebration. Cork has many other important uses besides as stoppers: think of flooring, bulletin boards, wall coverings, fishing floats, hot pads, fabrics, cigarette tips, shoe soles and musical instruments – there is even cork furniture. Recycling is becoming more and more important, and in the province of Verona, a pilot project for separating out and collecting corks has begun.
Cork oaks live about 150-250 years. Virgin cork (or “male” cork) is the first cork cut, generally from 25-year-old trees. Another 10-12 years is required for the second harvest, and a tree can be harvested a dozen times in its lifetime. Cork harvesting is done entirely without machinery. Cork planks are stacked outdoors at the factory for at least 6 months to season. After boiling, the planks are pressed and worked by machinery. Specialized technicians begin the cutting process. A one-piece cork stopper is the highest quality. In the last phase, the corks are washed and undergo a final quality test.
85% of Italian cork is found in Sardinia. Portugal and Spain are the world’s major producers, but France, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria also grow cork. From 2,200,000 hectares of forest come 3 million tons of cork each year. 70% of cork is used for wine stoppers. Winemakers buy 15 billion corks annually, giving work to tens of thousands of people.