The small hill station town of Aïn Draham, 30 km inland from the northern coast of Tunisia, sits at an altitude of 900m and gets snow in the winter months of December and January. During the winter of 2005, the town was covered with a 1.7m fluffy white blanket of the stuff. The road from the coast is described as one of the most beautiful in all of Tunisia, but we were approaching the town of red-tiled roofed houses from the south and there was nothing unattractive about that route either. In fact, the cork oak forests on this side of the Jebel Biri (1014m) are more dramatic because they are uninterrupted by human habitation or commercial establishments.
Cork forests? Now that was something I wanted to see. I don’t think I ever understood where cork comes from; and yet I’ve been around cork almost all my life. Of course, most of us are familiar with corkboards in all the classrooms in the schools in much of the world. I graduated to cork corks at the illegal age of 17 or 18, when my friends and I managed to get our hands on some fake ID cards and we bought cheap Australian wine to keep us warm on our ski trips to the Rockies.
Editor’s Note: But she just sipped, she never inhaled. Honest!!
Have not given up my love affair with the wine cork, but I did switch from white wines to red when I found that the sulphites in white wine caused some of my migraine headaches. It’s a romance I don’t really care to have end any time soon, but I am careful to keep my passion within limits. The biggest cork surprise I think I’ve ever had was when I learned that by brother David and his wife Jeong Ae were installing cork floors when they remodeled their old house in Mill Creek, Edmonton.
And now here we were, the place where much of the world’s cork is grown; who says money doesn’t grow on trees? Cork has long been used as stoppers on bottles because it is a wonder material. It’s light, sturdy, elastic, and almost impermeable to liquids. It’s an ideal environmental product, renewable and biodegradable. As the trees grow back their thick layer of cork, they take three to five times as much CO2 out of the atmosphere as non-harvested trees.
The cork oak forests are important to this region both economically and ecologically. The harvesting provides valuable employment in otherwise remote rural communities and the trees grow in marginal soils at cooler temperatures than most other productive trees. They shelter migratory birds from Northern Europe in winter and large number of plants and animals find the habitat they create ideal for their survival.
For these reasons, it’s hard to believe that many Australian wine makers have led the switch to plastic stoppers or twist-off lids. If the demand for wine corks continues to falter, the price for cork will plummet and the local communities will not be motivated to maintain the cork forests, or may even convert the land to agriculture. The World Wildlife Fund has started a campaign to promote the use of natural cork by wine producers around the world.
After reading about how cork is harvested, I was keen to stop by the road and have a look at the trees myself. The cork oak trees have a life span of between 100 and 300 years. When harvested, each tree yields between 25 and 60kg of raw cork. Only 12% of this can be turned into wine corks, the rest is used for the familiar products I mentioned earlier. The trunk of the tree looked reddish after harvesting, but almost immediately, the tree begins to grown a new protective covering and in 9 to 12 years, the bark is as thick as a wine cork again, and the harvesting cycle starts anew.
Learning what I have about genuine corks bottle stoppers, I plan to change my opinion about their use. I have to say, I have been lulled by the convenience of a twist cap, and always thought that plastic stoppers were used due to a shortage of the real thing. I know differently now and will do my best to contribute to the use of natural corks. I think I’ll have to consider drinking a little more wine every day as well.