By Zachary Fagenson
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Julian, the waiter at Tantra, presented my husband with a bottle of 1993 Deutz Trio champagne and a large knife. We were celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary, and Julian thought it would be a charming demonstration if Jon "saber-ed" the bubbly, a technique which involves positioning the blade just underneath the cork and hacking off the neck of the bottle in a single clean stroke. My first instinct, of course, was to yell, "Stop! You're a doctor with medical-school loans to repay! You need to keep all your fingers because I'm just a journalist and can't support us in the nouveau-poor style to which we've become accustomed!"But sometimes even very patient and shrew-tolerant husbands need to make grand gestures, so I kept silent and watched. In the end, I needn't have worried: The Deutz cork disgorged itself as soon as the foil was removed, serving up a Pavlovian pop with no bottle-fencing required. And we still got a pretty shower of sparkling wine, foaming over the top and into our waiting glasses.
Somehow I can't imagine twisting open a crown closure to achieve the same palate-stimulating and visually appealing effect, and that comes from a woman so much more cynical than romantic that she's thankful Keats didn't have a longer run for writing poetry. As Norman's sommelier Ian Falcone, who is "definitely against" replacing corks with screwcaps, says, "Uncorking is like waiting for a climax, and pulling the cork is like saying 'I do.'"
I suppose it was a combination of that unaccustomed romantic impulse and a touch of ignorance (even more unusual, I'd like to think) -- how was cork made, after all? -- that prompted me to head to the cork forests of Portugal to witness the harvest and production of natural cork stoppers.
In order to counteract the negative publicity engendered by a seemingly ever-rising number of cork-tainted bottles and a wide right turn toward sterile screwcaps endorsed by a generous double handful of international winemakers, the largely government-run Portuguese Cork Association (Associação Portuguesa de Cortiça, otherwise known as APCOR) has launched a telling campaign: January of 2002 saw the introduction of the Cork Information Bureau (CIB) and a year-long push toward promoting cork closures in ten of the world's key wine markets. Nearly 250 companies, representing various arms of the three-billion-dollar Portuguese cork industry, hold membership in APCOR; statistically, that means APCOR accounts for 75 percent of national production and 80 percent of cork exports. And that goodly portion has contributed twenty percent (via membership dues) to an earmarked eight million euros (supplemented by public funds) to market and improve the image of natural cork.
Still, Claudia Falley, the representative for the largest-producing APCOR member, Amorim & Irmãos, claims her company is not as panicked as, say, just about any brokerage firm on Wall Street. "I don't feel Amorim is threatened in a commercial sense," Falley notes. "We are funding the research and development to reduce the risk of contamination. What we want at the end of the day is much cleaner cork, and for our studies to scientifically prove we are providing [the quality] we thought we have been."
To that end, in the past four years, Amorim has devoted six million in U.S. dollars toward internal research in order to eradicate 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole (TCA), the aptly named Volatile Organic Compound that can taint a bottle of wine. Amorim, along with competing companies like Vinocor Industria de Cortica LDA, has also built state-of-the-art facilities in southern Portugal, closer to the cork forests than its other factories, so that it keeps watch at the source. Falley admits, "Amorim has made a huge investment in the south [of Portugal] to achieve better results in the quality of the bark."
Indeed, the source bears watching, for the enocentric of us who are romantic, scientific, or just plain curious. Cork is extracted from the bark that is stripped from Quercus Suber L., a type of acorn-producing English oak tree that has existed in its natural Mediterranean Basin environment for almost 60 million years. The cork oak forests cover 2.2 million hectares, expanding over seven countries; Portugal claims 725,000 hectares and 54 percent market-share of cork production. You don't need to be an industry analyst to know why it would want to protect its majority interest.
Originally cultivated to produce fruit for the black Iberian pigs that are still being bred in the cork forests in Alentejo, the southern region of the country, the Quercus Subers have a forked appearance that any South Florida fruit-bearing tree owner will recognize: a long, smooth, healthy trunk that bisects into a general V, which branches out into twigs and leaves from there. Because cork is only harvested from the trunks, and the color of the tree once the bark planks are removed is a vibrant rust -- it's hard not to think of blood -- the stripped torsos appear half-naked, like a human who is in the process of pulling a shirt over his head.
In fact the hue of the denuded trees reflects the color of the land, which is rugged, dry, and not entirely picturesque. The forests are identical to one another, whether they are naturally occurring or have been cultivated, with trees separated from each other by a radius of about 25 feet. Vegetation beneath the oak trees is sparse, providing room for roads, herds of grazing livestock, and subsidy crops.