Throughout the Alentejo region of Portugal, there are many cork oak forests and the trees provide income for many of the local people. Portugal is the World’s largest producer of cork contributing a third of worldwide production.
It is said that you plant a cork oak tree for your grandchildren. This is because it is at least 25 years before a cork oak matures. Then every 9 years the bark is stripped from the trunk and thick branches, and the tree is marked with the year of collection. Sections up to 3m in length and 10cm thick are removed by manual labour using only a small axe. It is a delicate process. If the weather is too wet and cold, the tree may die from shock and if the weather is too dry, the cork can shatter into pieces. Cork oaks can live up to 250 years and are protected by law so they cannot be cut down without permission. However, the industry is under threat as winemakers turn to alternative materials to plug their bottles. Wine corks represent 66% cork revenue but screw caps and plastic corks have become increasingly popular with both retailers and consumers.
Luckily, cork can be used for more than just sealing wine bottles. Fishing floats, dartboards, floor tiles, furniture, insulation, gaskets and pin boards to name just a few. In the souvenir shops along the coast there are a wide range of cork products. Handbags, shoes, jewellery and even mobile phone cases. The cork material is smooth and soft but quite expensive. However, there is still concern that cork oak forests may be replaced with higher yielding and more profitable trees such as eucalyptus and pine, and I’ve certainly seen plenty of those in my travels.
CBS produced a nice report on Portuguese cork harvest, production and products. You can watch it here.