Synthetic Corks vs. Natural Corks
Synthetic Corks vs. Natural Corks
High Quality Cork is Becoming Scarce
Cork has been used for so long for sealing wine bottles that as recently as a few years ago it was difficult to envision a day when bottles of fine wine would be sealed by anything else. But as Bertrand Russell said in 1950, "mankind has a remarkable ability to destroy the natural gifts of the planet", and high quality cork is becoming increasingly difficult to find.
Nearly 90% of the high quality natural cork needed for wine bottles comes from the Iberian Peninsula, especially from Portugal where it is obtained from the bark of Quercus suber, the cork-oak tree. Until recently, Portuguese law permitted the careful stripping by hand of the bark of the trees only once every nine years. The trees were treated with such respect that it was forbidden to strip trees that were less than 40 years old and the stripping was done so carefully that it was not unusual to find trees that lived for 200 or more years. As the international demand for cork for bottles increased, the laws were made more lenient and, as trees began to be stripped every four or five years, the health of the trees and the quality of the cork deteriorated rapidly. As recently as twenty years ago, cork stoppers were so reliable that only one in every four or five hundred bottles of wine developed a musty smell because of faults in the cork itself. Many wineries today report that one in every ten bottles of their wine is "corked", that it so say, infected by a fungus increasingly found in natural cork that makes the wine undrinkable.
Necessity has forced winemakers to look to other sources, and from California to Australia and Italy, more than three hundred wineries are currently experimenting with the use of synthetic corks, typically made made from ethylene-vinyl acetate.
There are actually several advantages to using man-made corks. Foremost is the fact that synthetic corks are made of an inert material, which is to say that there is virtually no chance that the wine will be infected by fungus, microbes, or other faults that are increasingly found in real cork. Equally important is that because these man-made corks seal bottles even better than real cork and never become dry, there is less chance of air entering the bottle and spoiling the wine.
Not every aspect of these man-made corks is positive. Even though experiments have been carried out for nearly ten years, not enough is yet known about the long term affects of using them. Logic tells us that the super-tight fit of bottles sealed with man made materials will make wine age somewhat differently in the bottle. The logical, but as yet untested, extension of this realization is that wines will also age more slowly. Whether this means that they will age better remains to be seen.
Nearly 300 wineries, mostly in the United States, have begun to use these corks. Wisely, none of them have been foolish enough to make the switchover from real to man-make cork too rapidly, and most are introducing them slowly to the market, primarily with white wines that are meant to be consumed young. Experiments with red wines, especially those that are expected to have a long life span, are taking place within the confines of laboratories. This gradual introduction to the market allows wineries to see how customers react to the new corks, and whether they perceive differences in the wines, whether those differences are actually there or not. These wineries also realize that synthetic cork has not been around long enough to know exactly what its effect will be on wines that need long aging in the bottle.
Speaking of corks, do you need help getting them out of the bottle? Be sure to check out our selection of corkscrews and wine openers and then once you do get the cork out, preserve your bottle of wine with one of The Tipsy Grape's wine stoppers.