The Glory of the Cork

Issue #38, May 2022

I hope I’m not just talking about me, but we spend quite a bit of time thinking about and celebrating wine. Right? But more than a little credit is due to that 2½ inch stopper that has quietly and beautifully been doing its job preserving and protecting wine since the 1600s. 

The unassuming cork wine stopper, some say invented by the Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon (he must have had a bubbly personality) is sourced from the bark of cork oak trees in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Algeria.

Cork Oak Plantation

Cork oaks are first harvested when they are 25 years old and every nine years from then on. Only after the third harvest is the bark of sufficient quality to be turned into wine corks.  This process yields high-quality cork while enabling the trees to live healthy lives for more than 300 years.

A Master at Work

Harvesting cork bark requires great skill as the bark is carefully peeled away from the trunk and cut into sheets. The oak trees are not cut down, and only about half of their bark is removed at any time. My wife and I travelled through Portugal by train a few years ago and we wondered at the time what was happening with these semi-naked trees. Little did we know we were seeing a tradition that’s been at work for centuries. 

As you know, more and more we are seeing fewer and fewer corks at work in the wine bottles we buy. It has been suggested this is due to a depletion of the cork forests. However, it is also believed the cork plantations in Europe are sustainable and healthy. And that perhaps the wine industry is moving to twist tops and artificial corks as a cost-cutting measure.

At any rate, the last thing I want is to get caught in the middle of a philosophical cork war. All I know is I look forward to pulling a real cork versus twisting a top. So, this month down here in the cellar we’ll meet three wines that are good, that are affordable and still use that most wonderful of stoppers which adds to the ceremony of opening a bottle and the anticipation of pouring the wine it contains.

Welcome back to the cellar.

Our first bottle comes from the Viña Tarapacá Winery in Chile. 

Here’s the cork, along with one of my ancient corkscrews that resides down here in the cellar. 

Vina Tarapaca is one of Chile’s oldest wineries. It was founded when Canada was just seven years into being a country and lives happily producing excellent wine in the foothills of the Andes.

Tarapacá Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon
Maipo Valley, Chile
VINTAGES #18721
$17.95

This tasty Tarapacá is a generous full-bodied offering of black fruits and earthiness. There might even be a hint of mint and chocolate in there. It has a healthy tannic quality giving it depth and character. This wine would be great with meat, like grilled lamb or steak or this traditional Chilean dish; Charquicán. (char–key-can)

This is a flavorful Chilean stew that was originally made with dried and salted llama meat, pumpkin, onions, sweet corn, and potatoes. Modern versions often use ground beef instead of llama meat (due to its strong flavour). The dish is topped with a fried egg. 

Delish I’m sure. 

It’s time to pull another cork.

This one, from a bottle of Gérard Bertrand Réserve Spéciale Viognier.

Viognier (Vio-nyay) is primarily grown in the southeastern region of France known as Roussillon. It can range in intensity from light and spritzy with a touch of bitterness to bold and creamy.

Gérard Bertrand Réserve Spéciale Viognier 2020
Product of France
750 ml bottle VINTAGES #147975
$14.95

This viognier is mellow yellow in the glass. It’s nicely floral, with tones of peach, orange, honeysuckle and apricot.

Gérard Bertrand Réserve Spéciale Viognier 2020 is rich and dry and vibrantly refreshing. Great with grilled salmon and perfect for a sunny, afternoon sip and kip.  

Oh look, another cork has been pulled from duty.

It’s fresh out of a red from the Rhone.

This Rhone beauty is a melding of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre; the quintessential blend of this famed French valley. I love this mix. It’s full and tasty and smooooooth. 

Winemakers create distinctive GSM wines by mixing up the percentages of each of these grapes. While Grenache is the predominant grape in most GSM blends, some winemakers will use more Syrah than Grenache. Generally, Mourvèdre, the boldest of the three grapes, is added in small amounts to the blend.

Whoever said ‘two’s company but three’s a crowd’ clearly hadn’t tried this triumph of winemaking. Here’s the bottle.

Château Le Grand Retour Plan de Dieu Côtes du Rhône-Villages 2019
Product of France
750 ml bottle VINTAGES #224592
$16.95

This is an elegant and complex wine that comes from 45-year-old vines. It’s rich and smooth with lots of fruitiness, spice, and leather. I have a feeling it will probably get better with age so maybe pop a couple in your cellar for a year or two from now. However, I wouldn’t hesitate to open one today. Actually, we just did.

This style of wine goes with a lot of different dishes. Certainly, red meat choices are good but also cheese plates, pasta with veggies and many different chicken recipes will work nicely too.

But it also goes perfectly in a glass with nothing more than the company of you and yours. 

Well, we’ve put that old corkscrew through its paces. There are so many fancy cork pullers on the market these days. Some look more like microscopes than something needed to remove a cork from a bottle. But I love the simplicity of a cork puller from the past. Yes, a little more muscle may be required but what a great sound we are rewarded with when that cork is freed. 

It is the sound of escape. Maybe to wherever the bottles we open have come from. But perhaps it is also the cork reminding us of the place from where it likely came; 

a forest of marvelous and ancient cork oak trees somewhere in Portugal.

See you in June.

Until then, keep your glass of wine close and your friends even closer.

Jim

Thanks to everyone for signing up to my web page where you’ll see this each month as a blog. If you know anyone who is interested in following the newsletter, they just have to visit jimsaffordablecellar.ca to submit their email. They’ll be notified each month, as will you when each new issue is published. And the newsletter is a little more reader-friendly there. Please let me know if you’d like to share some wine you love with the rest of us. roamingbuffalo44@gmail.com 

6 thoughts on “The Glory of the Cork

  1. Thank you for my Sunday morning read. I found the history of cork making fascinating. Much respect to the cork! Love me a GSM, will hunt this one down! Hope you’re all having a nice long weekend… I’m on Lake Huron taking in the beauty of nature.

    See you soon – much love and gratitude for your cellar updates!

    Stephanie Hardman

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  2. Hello Jimmy:)

    As always, I love reading your cellar posts. So glad I got added to your mailing list!

    So them cork trees…..I’m so glad you have educated me because I’m sure if I’d ever seen a bark-stripped tree before reading this story, I would have raged against the thoughtless destruction of the trees. Now I can direct my rage towards something else- the lack of public toilets In toronto for example! Now there’s a problem to be solved;)

    I was just heading out to queen street to pick up a few things and the LCBO is on my stop list…good shop your cellar advice will make my shopping trip quick:) Lizzie

    Sent from my iPhone

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  3. Hi Jim: I just love your stories and Vera does too. So does her son and daughter-in-law.

    When I was in Spain, I saw the cork trees. Very interesting. But you always do some research and make the story wonderful. Thank you. Baba >

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