What is better for the environment, cork wine stoppers, or plastic or screw tops?

What is better for the environment, cork wine stoppers, or plastic or screw tops?

—Susan Wolniakowski, Duluth, MN

Though you might be surprised, natural cork wine stoppers are the best choice, primarily because harvesting the real stuff is an age-old practice that keeps the world’s relatively small population of cork oak trees, which can live for hundreds of years, alive. These scattered pockets of cork oaks, mostly in Portugal and Spain, thrive in the hot, arid conditions of the southern Mediterranean, sheltering a wide array of biodiversity and helping to protect the soil from drying out.

In addition, some wildlife depends upon cork oak forests for their survival, including the Iberian lynx, the Barbary deer and the Egyptian mongoose, as well as rare birds such as the Imperial Iberian eagle and the black stork. As wine producers switch to other types of wine stoppers, the cork oak forests could be abandoned and the trees and the myriad plants and animals that depend on them could die out.

While 70 percent of wine bottles still contain natural cork stoppers, plastic and glass alternatives have been coming on strong in recent years. Indeed, more and more winemakers around the world are switching to alternatives, citing benefits including the avoidance of cork mold that can taint wine and the ability to more easily re-close opened bottles. In Australia and New Zealand—both promising upstarts on the global wine scene—the majority of wine producers use screw caps, mainly because they can make them cheaply instead of paying the relatively high price of importing the natural cork.

But the increasing popularity around the world of screw caps and plastic stoppers has cork producers and environmentalists alike worried. In a recent report, “Cork Screwed,” the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) predicts that, at the current rate of adoption by wine producers, screw caps and other synthetic non-cork wine stoppers will dominate the market by 2015, calling into question the future of Mediterranean cork forests. In order to stem the tide, the organization is supporting efforts by Portuguese cork producers to certify their practices as sustainable by the non-profit Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which promotes sustainable, economically-viable forestry practices around the world.

“Cork oak forests rank among the top biodiversity hotspots in the Mediterranean and in Europe. At the same time, they are the backbone of an entire economy,” says Nora Berrahmouni, coordinator of WWF’s Cork Oak Landscapes program. “FSC certification will reinforce the already environmentally friendly characteristics of the cork economy, leading to new opportunities in cork markets,” she adds.

Public opinion will undoubtedly be what calls the day, and producers of plastic stoppers and metal screw caps are working hard to overcome the stigma associated with using their products, as most consumers still associate non-cork stoppers with cheap wine. For now, the world’s premiere winemakers in Europe are still bullish on the cork reserves in their own backyards. And wine enthusiasts everywhere can do their part to help the environment by choosing wines with natural cork stoppers.

CONTACTS: Forest Stewardship Council, www.fsc.org/en/whats_new/news/news_notes/23; “Cork Screwed,” http://assets.panda.org/downloads/cork_rev12_print.pdf.