Well, not the corks obviously…
I always envisaged that I would be writing this first entry in the journal of Vinnie’s travels with the warmth of the Italian spring sun on my back. Sadly, this is not the case; instead, we find ourselves ensconced in the depths of the Somerset countryside and very beautiful it is and, yes, I do realize how very fortunate we are compared with those poor souls under ‘lockdown’ in the cities. Here we can watch the English spring unfold on a daily basis as the daffodils fade away to be replaced by the bluebells and even catch a glimpse of the deer in the wood as we take our daily exercise. Indeed, it is a taste of a bucolic paradise, and yet, as I relish it, I know that all across Italy the vines are awakening from their winter slumber. The vines grow at a frantic pace – it is as if they understand that there is a lot to be done between now and the autumn harvest and there is so little time in which to do it. Pruned back hard over the winter, they send their shoots up toward the sun at a pace that is almost visible.
While all this is happening in Italy, Vinnie and I let our thoughts run along some of the quieter byways of the world of wine and of particular interest to Vinnie are corks. Corks and stoppers are something that we can easily take for granted but that would be a shame. Modern viticulture has produced many innovations – some are welcome, others less so. Screw top bottles are now in use all over the world, although noticeably less so in Italy.
So what are their advantages and drawbacks? The great advantage is obviously price as they are very much cheaper. Against this, what are the disadvantages? Well, for wines that are intended to be drunk young, not many. Italian white wines are generally meant to be drunk while they are still fresh and full of citrus loveliness, designed to make you salivate in anticipation of the repast that awaits you. So why, you ask, are the Italians not using this innovation more? The answer, as with so many things in Italy, comes down to the Italian’s sense of the joy of life and living. Where is the delight and anticipation in the sound of a screw top being opened compared to the deeply satisfying sound of a cork being extracted from a bottle where it has spent so long? So if it is to be a cork, why not a synthetic one? These are used and they do have advantages in that there can be no ‘corking’ issues and the amount of oxygen that enters the bottle is predictable but ultimately these are not natural products and this is an aspect close to many Italian winemakers’ hearts.
So a cork it has to be but what type of cork? Cork is the bark of the cork oak tree, quercus suber, which grows all around the Mediterranean with the majority of the production coming from Spain and Portugal. The tree can live for more than two hundred years and the first harvest is taken after around twenty five years; subsequently, the bark is taken from the tree typically at nine-year intervals. Cork is used for more than just bottle stoppers – it is commonly used for floor tiles and it is also at the heart of cricket balls and shuttlecocks.
However, when it comes to wine, if the cork is to perform its duty then it must be without cracks and other flaws, and as it is the bark of a tree with all the natural imperfections that this implies, this requires rigorous quality control and, naturally, the cost rises. There is a compromise available and you may well have come across it without noticing as it is commonly used. Agglomerated corks are made with small pieces of cork bound together under pressure and are therefore cheaper and come with granules of varying sizes according to the method of manufacture.
These corks can either be extruded or moulded and if you have ever had the annoying issue of the cork breaking as you try and extract it – Vinnie hates this – the chances are it is extruded rather than moulded.
One final point – before Vinnie and I retreat back into our Covid-19 induced hibernation – why is there a foil capsule around the cork? Historically, it was there to protect the cork because, as we have examined above, it is a natural wood product and so there will always be some insects that will feed upon it. This is not a problem with today’s modern bottling and storage methods but it still serves as a way to prevent tampering; in the past this capsule was normally made of lead but for health reasons this is no longer the case. Today the capsule is made either from tin, aluminium or plastic. Finally, just as the best things come in attractive wrapping, it serves to finish the presentation of the bottle.