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Wednesday, July 19, 2006 01:02 am

Cork screwed

The environmentally sound choice for wine

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Natural cork wine stoppers are the best environmental choice

Dear “Earth Talk”: What is better for the environment, cork wine stoppers or plastic or screw tops? — Susan Wolniakowski, Duluth, Minn.

Though you might be surprised, natural cork wine stoppers are the best choice, mainly because harvesting the real stuff is an age-old practice that keeps the world’s relatively small population of cork oak trees, which can live for hundreds of years, alive. These scattered pockets of cork oaks, mostly in Portugal and Spain, thrive in the hot, arid conditions of the southern Mediterranean, sheltering a wide array of biodiversity and helping protect the soil from drying out.

In addition, some wildlife depends upon cork oak forests for their survival, including the Iberian lynx and the Barbary deer, as well as rare birds such as the imperial Iberian eagle, the black stork, and the Egyptian mongoose. As wine producers switch to other types of wine stoppers, the cork oak forests could be abandoned and the trees and the myriad plants and animals that depend on them could die out.

Although 70 percent of wine bottles still contain natural cork stoppers, plastic and glass alternatives have been coming on strong in recent years. Indeed, more and more winemakers around the world are switching to alternatives, citing benefits including the avoidance of cork mold that can taint wine and the ability to more easily reclose opened bottles. In Australia and New Zealand — both promising upstarts on the global wine scene — most wine producers use screw caps, mainly because they can make them cheaply instead of paying the relatively high price of importing the natural cork.

But the increasing popularity around the world of screw caps and plastic stoppers has cork producers and environmentalists alike worried. In a recent report, “Cork Screwed,” the World Wildlife Fund predicts that, at the current rate of adoption by wine producers, screw caps and other synthetic noncork wine stoppers will dominate the market by 2015, calling into question the future of Mediterranean cork forests. To stem the tide, the organization is supporting efforts by Portuguese cork producers to certify their practices as sustainable by the nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council, which promotes sustainable, economically viable forestry practices around the world.

Public opinion will undoubtedly be what calls the day, and producers of plastic stoppers and metal screw caps are working hard to overcome the stigma associated with using their products; most consumers still associate non-cork stoppers with cheap wine. For now, the world’s premiere winemakers in Europe are still bullish on the cork reserves in their own back yards. Wine enthusiasts everywhere can do their part to help the environment by choosing wines with natural cork stoppers.

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