The cork stopper was another technological advance important to wine. A species of the oak tree (Quercus Suber) provides the ultimate, most natural, stopper for wine. It is found primarily on the Iberian Peninsula and in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains in North Africa.
Although the Egyptians used cork stoppers three thousand years ago, the idea did not catch on. Fishermen throughout the Mediterranean were more likely to use cork as a flotation device for their nets. The Romans would sometimes use cork as a roofing material, but it was more commonly found on the soles of their footwear. Even today, less than half of the cork harvest is used in the production of stoppers: the balance of the harvest is used to manufacture tiles and so on.
Up to the late 16th century, wooden pegs wrapped in oil-soaked cloth were the method of choice for sealing non-uniform, handcrafted wine bottles. Only after the advent of uniformly sized bottlenecks during the Industrial Revolution, was cork able to become the stopper of choice.
Today, the majority of cork stoppers come from the forests of Portugal, where they were first used to seal bottles of port. The cork industry, in Portugal alone, employs over ten thousand skilled workers. Keep in mind that the first crop cannot be harvested until the cork tree is at least 25 years old. Subsequent harvests can only take place after the tree has regenerated the cork bark: a minimum of 10 years. So the tree is a national treasure, protected by law. Its management — similar to the great oak forests of France— provides an incredible example of sustainable agroforestry.
Cork is the perfect wine stopper. When compressed in the neck of a bottle, it endeavors to expand to its original state. Even so, a miniscule amount of air still manages to get into the bottle. A study in Bordeaux found that this trace contact between wine and air allows wine to improve in the bottle.
Next week we look at the types of stoppers.
This week I tasted the newly released 2011 Fumé Blanc ($25), by The Grange of Prince Edward. This wine is made from estate-grown Sauvignon Blanc, which is a very adaptable varietal. Depending on where it is grown, it can take on different flavor profiles: in California it might come across with notes of melon; in New Zealand the predominant flavors would be tart gooseberry.
The Grange’s Fumé Blanc offers notes of lime and tropical fruit. The palate is a tart lime leaf and lemongrass, with a hint of toasted almonds on the back end. County acidity is prevalen making this a great wine to accompany sushi. In my case, this wine nicely complemented a heavily layered five-cheese pizza with fresh oregano (light on the tomato sauce).
Fumé Blanc is available at The Grange of Prince Edward Estate Winery & Vineyards, located at 990 Closson Road.
Wines of the County is featured every week in The Times and on the East & Main Bistro website.