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Friday, December 19, 2008

Will Screw Cap Wines Destroy Biodiversity?

I've always felt a little strange opening a bottle of wine that has a screw cap closure. In fact, I'm not a big fan of synthetic plastic corks. It turns out I'm not just a snob, I'm also an environmentalist.

A BBC Natural World documentary is set to air next month that quotes a World Wildlife Fund study that suggests up to 75 percent of the Mediterranean's cork forests could disappear in the next decade. The culprit is not global warming. It's the screw cap.

As wineries increasingly turn away from natural cork, the market has declined. Farmers facing economic ruin by the falling demand for corks are ripping out trees to plant other crops. Many of the farmers are then finding that the land that used to support cork forests offers poor growing conditions for other crops. Some of the areas have turned desert-like.

When cork trees are removed, wildlife habitats are also lost. The World Wildlife Fund says species such as the Iberian lynx, black storks, booted eagles and European cranes are threatened by the dwindling cork forests.

Wineries have been turning away from natural cork for economic reasons and because of the problem of wines becoming "corked" -- a condition where wine develops an off flavor as it ages. Scientists have traced this problem to a chemical called trichloroanisol. Cork producers in Portugal are attempting new sterilization methods to rid the cork of the chemical and eliminate the problem.

Cork is harvested by stripping off the bark from a live cork oak, which requires more than four decades to reach maturity. The tree is left standing and the bark grows back in nine years, when it can be stripped again. A mature tree can yield 4,000 corks.

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