Thursday 26 April 2018

Pop a cork and save farmers

LIKE patient soldiers, the corks stand upright on a kitchen shelf arranged along with clam and cockle shells, oranges and 'rusty-coat' apples passing the days to ripeness.

The soldiers' lines grow slowly but not as numerically as in the past. The bottles they once stopped have longer lives now, so the corks have a more continuing duty. Signs of a slower savouring of the wine and/or the more abstemious lifestyle of the imbiber.

On a mantelpiece is a piece of rough cork bark, hacked off the base of a tree with trusty boot in a landscape of oaks, which might have been destined for a bottle or a sandal. Cork trees grow slowly in a lifespan of more than 100 years and are never cut down except for serious economic reasons. The bark is stripped only every nine years and then, carefully, by hand.

But this landscape of forest harvesting – which covers an international area about half the size of Switzerland – is in danger of eventually being turned into desert, and the

wild birds and animals it protects scattered to extinction, by market forces which decide how wine bottles are bunged.

Such woodlands provide a livelihood for more than 100,000 people throughout the Iberian Peninsula as well as specific parts of France, Italy, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.

New World wine producers who opt for screw-caps and plastic bottle stoppers are a threat to this traditional industry. Already they have 20 per cent of the market.

The World Wildlife Fund has estimated that three-quarters of the western Mediterranean's cork oak forests could be lost within 10 years, and that the plastic and screw-top momentum could take up to 80 per cent of the wine bottle market well before that.

In the past 10 years cork forests in the Algarve, Portugal's most southern province, have declined by 28 per cent. Seventy per cent of one firm's products, worth €500m, has now fallen to €200m with the natural cork being used just for sparkling wine bottles.

Iberian farmers cannot survive solely on the cork trade; their livestock roam freely beneath the trees in the steppe-like countryside, especially the famous black pigs free-ranging for acorns.

But as demand for cork dwindles other cash crops must be considered, and so swathes of ancient oaks are felled and the land tilled. But there follows the danger of desertification because of soil erosion and poor water supply.

However, Portugal's cork woodlands still cover 33 per cent of the landmass. They are home to black and white storks, booted eagles and great bustards and many smaller bird species, and are visited by flocks of cranes.

A simple choice, now that the festive time draws near, of choosing a bottle of wine stopped by a cork, is a small but positive gesture towards those Portuguese and Spanish farmers hanging in there. Raise a glass or two to them. I will join you. (O mesmo por favor!) Fill 'em up again, lads.

Sunday Independent

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