Our destination this month is Portugal, that narrow strip of a
country that sits on the Western flank of the Iberian peninsula.
Secluded geographically - and for the better part of the last century,
secluded politically as well - Portugal is a country whose vineyards
and winemaking traditions evolved (until fairly recently) largely in
That history of isolation had, of course, some
negative effects. With little exposure to wines from (and winemaking
practices in) other parts of the world, the Portuguese made wines to
suit their own palates: dried out, fruitless reds (highly acidic from
the north, earthy and rustic from the south) and whites that were dull,
heavy, and oxidized. Antonio Salazar, whose dictatorship lasted 42
years (1932-1974), further stultified the winemaking scene with the
construction of more than a hundred coops and the establishment of an
inflexible system that led to a deterioration in winemaking standards.
that history of isolation also had one major plus to it: it enabled
Portugal to preserve her rich heritage of native grape varieties. And
so Portuguese wines, both red and white, enjoy a really distinctive
character that truly sets them apart from the increasingly
internationalized style of wine being pursued throughout most of the
Portugal's wine transformation began with the
country's return to democracy in the late 1970s, then took a giant leap
forward when the country joined the EU in 1986. Membership in the EU
brought with it much-needed money in the form of grants and
low-interest loans for new equipment; since then there has been a slow
but steady change to the point where Portugal now has some of the most
modern winemaking facilities in southern Europe. Additionally,
relaxation of the state bureaucracy also encouraged producers to break
away from the coops and form single estates (quintas) where they could
exert much higher quality control.
And so, by 1994-1995, the
differences were right there in the wines for all the world to see and
appreciate: the reds had become deliciously fruity and easily
accessible, the whites were now clean and crisp and fresh. Like all
true revolutions, this one had started at the bottom, with wines from
such lesser-known regions as the Alentejo and Estremadura; but by now
the revolution has filtered its way up the quality scale (the delay
being accounted for by the fact that more serious wines take longer to
reach the market).
We can do no better than to conclude with a
quote from one of our favorite wine writers, Tom Stevenson, a quote
that takes us neatly back to our headline. Stevenson writes: "Once
devoid of anything interesting beyond its two classic fortified wines,
Port and Madeira, Portuguese winemakers have now woken up to the
tremendous potential of the terroirs and native grape varieties that
their country offers, making it a hotbed of innovation."
Now Let's Talk of Cork
seemed only fitting to write about corks in tandem with Portugal.
Portugal is, after all, the center of the world's cork business, and
the cork business is a significant factor in the Portuguese economy.
corks are made from the thick outer bark of the cork oak, Quercus
suber; the tree grows this spongy substance for protection and
insulation, particularly against fire, and the mature bark is so thick
and resistant it can be stripped off without harming the tree.
cork oak has some rather exacting requirements for growing conditions:
it needs chalk-free soil, between 15 and 30 inches of rain a year, an
altitude of 300-1,000 feet, and temperature that never drops below 23F
. . . and all of that pretty much limits it to the western
Mediterranean coast. So, while Portugal's cork forests represent 30% of
the world's cork trees, the country's industry processes more than half
of the world's total output, importing additional raw material from
Spain, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Sicily, and Sardinia.
harvesting is strictly controlled by Portuguese law. Trees must be 25
years old before they are first harvested, and the process can be
repeated only every nine summers after that. Cork oaks have a life-span
of roughly 170 years and the older they are the more cork they yield.
On average, an acre of trees produces 200 pounds of cork.
does the bark become a usable bottle stopper? The bark is removed from
the tree in strips, which are first left to season for six months; then
they are boiled for 90 minutes to remove any impurities, then allowed
to rest again for three weeks before being cut into cork-width strips.
Corks are punched out of these strips (usually by hand), then often
bleached, graded into eight different quality categories, branded, and
stored in a well-ventilated facility in temperature- and
cork in the first place? It all has to do with molecular structure
(which I won't attempt to explain, not being a chemist), which makes it
a substance that is light, elastic, inert, and impermeable to gases and
most liquids. And cork has an impressive life-span, going brittle and
crumbly slowly, over a period of from 20 to 50 years.
know from art work of the period that the Romans knew about and used
corks, but with the Moorish occupation of Spain and Portugal from the
8th to the 15th century, the primary sources for the material dried up.
Strips of cloth were used to stopper barrels during the Middle Ages,
and glass stoppers (rather costly) were used for individual bottles.
Corks are back on the scene by the late 16th century (there are
references in Shakespeare) and in widespread use shortly thereafter.
for the $64 question: why does the wine server at a restaurant hand you
the cork (presumably having already smelled it on your behalf)? There
are tiny pores in the cork which can trap bacteria, and this results in
what is called "cork taint" (an unpleasant dirty-sock odor that can be
detected on the cork and has usually penetrated into the wine itself).
Incidence of this rose dramatically in the 1980s (which many attribute
to the increased use of bleaching in the manufacturing process), and so
you have been seeing alternatives in the form of polymer-based or
composite stoppers. Will the real cork disappear? We don't think so.
After all, it's those troublesome pores that enable your fine red wines
to take in oxygen slowly and thus age gracefully.
View all Articles