Except for the cellphone hitched to his belt, 79-year-old Jose Joaquin da Silva Perdigao has been harvesting cork in Portugal’s forests in much the same way for more than half a century. Today, three generations of the Perdigao family work among the giant oaks, peeling the spongy bark that makes cork.
The men (it’s always men) use axes to split the bark in just the right place, tap it loose, and then with their bare hands pull off long, dark strips. Perdigao says his 12-ax team can shave 1,000 trees in a day.
“It’s very hard now to find people who want to do this work,” Perdigao said of his age-old business.
Although little has changed in the way the cork is harvested, Portugal’s top producers are introducing major changes in the way the material is processed and marketed -- crucial, they say, if the industry is to recover after years of slumping sales and fleeing customers.
Cork is essential to Portugal’s economic and cultural identity. Portuguese babies hear lullabies about cork; children study it in school. It is against the law to cut down a cork oak.
This small country is the world’s top producer of cork, which accounts for nearly $1.2 billion in exports annually (the only product for which Portugal can claim to be a world leader).
But the industry took a crippling hit when bottlers of wine began shifting away from cork stoppers in the 1990s and replacing them with plastic plugs or metal screw-tops. There were several reasons behind the shift. Especially for fast-growing wineries first in California and then Australia and New Zealand, cork imported from the distant Mediterranean country was expensive.
And the tendency of cork to develop a mold that can taint wine, making even the finest vintages undrinkable, was ruining its reputation and turning many dealers away.
Now, Portuguese cork producers are fighting back. They say they have found ways to substantially reduce the risk of taint. And they are promoting cork as the environmentally beneficial alternative; cork, it turns out, is green.
“We have felt our position under threat,” said Antonio Amorim, chief executive of Portugal-based Amorim & Irmaos, the world’s largest purveyor of cork stoppers.
Amorim, who is also president of APCOR, a national association of cork producers, said he believed that consumers still appreciated cork as a sign of good wine and that they were wising up to what he saw as the disadvantages of plastic and rubber.
But just as he and his colleagues were regaining some of the ground lost to such synthetics, a new enemy, the metal screw-top, began to grow in popularity.
Amorim, 40, heads the company founded by his great-grandfather in 1870 and that today produces 3 billion wine corks a year, 25% of the world’s output. Energetic and pragmatic, he acknowledges that cork will never regain its dominance among wine bottle closures, but he is confident that it will make great strides.
Amorim & Irmaos has seen its market share fall by about 20% in the last decade, although the overall market has continued to grow, the CEO said.
“We won’t get back all of the market,” Amorim said in an interview over fish and mussels at a Lisbon restaurant.
“But we can get back the middle- to high-level wines, the reds and aged whites.” (For inexpensive wines consumed quickly, the stopper is of little importance; it’s when a wine is to be aged that cork, because of its porous quality, is considered by most connoisseurs to be crucial.)
Portuguese cork producers acknowledge that they were slow to bring science and the latest technology into the problems facing their industry.
In the last five years they have invested nearly half a billion dollars in upgrading and modernizing their processing systems.
Amorim said that since 2000 his company has plopped $60 million into research, aimed specifically at the tainting problem and finding cheaper ways to produce quality stoppers.
Researchers at Amorim & Irmaos have developed a procedure that the company says reduces the presence of the chemical produced by mold that causes cork taint by 75% to 90% over previously detected levels. It involves better cleaning, drier storage and more quality control.
At the company’s 22-acre plant in Coruche, 40 miles east of Lisbon, hundreds of tons of stripped bark are stacked awaiting processing and looking something like mountains and canyons of carpet remnants. Forklifts carry 5-foot-high pallets of bark to vats of boiling water, the start of a long process of cleaning, cutting, flattening and punching.
A key step in the new process is steaming, which officials say removes the chemical compound trichloroanisole, or TCA, that is caused by natural fungus and is responsible for spoiling the taste and smell of a small but significant percentage of wines.
The company also uses sophisticated gas chromatography machines that search for TCA.
Previously, inspectors relied primarily on their eyes and hands to weed out bad cork.
Other preventive measures also are being taken, said Amorim’s marketing director, Carlos de Jesus. These include storing the bark on concrete to prevent contamination from the soil and requiring suppliers to cut higher up the trunk of the tree for the same reason.
Amorim & Irmaos has also expanded its trade in other areas where cork is used, including flooring, shoes, space rockets and insulation for recording studios.
The new strategy appears to be working for the company, whose sales began to pick up slightly in 2005 and increased by 3.4% last year. It has become a prized pick on the Portuguese stock market, according to Bloomberg News.
Still, several big wine sellers, notably in Britain, have recently opted for screw caps, and others in the global wine industry are not convinced that the Portuguese cork-producers’ efforts are sufficient.
Jon Fredrikson, an analyst at Woodside, Calif.-based Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, said alternative closures would continue to be developed for most wines, with the exception of premium reds.
“While [cork producers] have tried hard to lower the incidence of TCA, it is still higher than most consumers will accept,” Fredrikson said by telephone. “Even if it’s down to 5% or 4%, name another product that consumers will accept with that high a failure rate.”
Undaunted, Amorim & Irmaos and other Portuguese firms have mounted an aggressive marketing campaign that emphasizes cork as the ecologically friendly alternative because it is biodegradable and recyclable, and trees are not destroyed to produce it.
Cork “is a politically correct product,” CEO Amorim said.
“You cannot say ‘no’ to plastic bags and ‘yes’ to plastic corks,” he added. “You cannot say ‘global warming’ and ‘aluminum screw-caps.’ You can’t have organic wines produced without chemicals and pesticides, and then put a plastic stopper in the bottle.”
Environmentalists look favorably on cork forests, almost all of which grow in the arid climes of Portugal, Spain and parts of northern Africa, because they protect ecosystems that are habitats for endangered animal and bird species, including imperial eagles, black storks, the Iberian lynxes and Barbary deer.
Cork oaks grow slowly, live for more than 100 years, are resistant to fire and use little water. By law, the harvesters cannot touch a tree until it is 25 years old, and then it can be stripped every nine to 15 years.
A tree that has given up its bark is left with a funny terra-cotta color.
But, as long as the harvesting was done correctly, it will live on and regenerate its bark.
“You have to hit the tree with the blade at the right place, then pry the bark loose,” said Perdigao, the patriarch of the cork-harvesting team, working in Arneiros. “It is difficult work and you need a lot of strength. By the time evening comes you’re exhausted.”
Some ranchos have begun to use electric saws instead of axes, but not Perdigao and his men, who are suppliers for Amorim. Cutting too deeply can leave the tree mangled and sickly.
“You have to have the skill to do this without damaging the tree,” he said, standing amid the oaks and wearing a plaid beret and wool sweater despite the summer heat.
Around him, men with axes were scaling the grand oaks, high above the sandy soil.