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From the Editors of E/The Environmental
Toast to Eco-Friendly Wine Caps
Is nature’s way still the best?
What is better for the environment: cork wine stoppers, plastic or screw tops?
Susan Wolniakowski, Duluth, Minn.
Though you might be surprised, natural cork wine stoppers are the best choice, primarily because harvesting the real stuff is an age-old practice that keeps alive the world’s relatively small population of cork oak trees, which can live for hundreds of years. 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 to protect the soil from drying out.
In addition, depending on cork oak forests for survival is wildlife 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.
While 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 re-close opened bottles. In Australia and New Zealand both promising upstarts on the global wine scene the majority of 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 non-cork wine stoppers will dominate the market by 2015, calling into question the future of Mediterranean cork forests. To stem the tide, the Fund is supporting efforts by Portuguese cork producers to certify their practices as sustainable by the non-profit Forest Stewardship Council, which promotes sustainable, economically viable forestry practices around the world.
“Cork oak forests rank among the top biodiversity hotspots in the Mediterranean and in Europe,” says Nora Berrahmouni, coordinator of World Wildlife Fund’s Cork Oak Landscapes program. “At the same time, they are the backbone of an entire economy. Forest Stewardship Council certification will reinforce the already environmentally friendly characteristics of the cork economy, leading to new opportunities in cork markets.”
Public opinion will undoubtedly call the day. Producers of plastic stoppers and metal screw caps are working hard to overcome the stigma associated with using their products, as 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 backyards. Wine enthusiasts everywhere can do their part to help the environment by choosing wines with natural cork stoppers.
For more information:
• Forest Stewardship Council: www.fsc.org/en/whats_new/news/news_notes/23.
• Cork Screwed report: http://assets.panda.org/downloads/cork_rev12_print.pdf.
Got an environmental question? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek: or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.