IT’S sad to learn that the Spanish cork industry continues to struggle. Despite a bumper crop this Autumn, after last Winter’s heavy rains, the price has fallen once again. In the last few years it has plummetted by a massive 30 per cent and according to some agricultural collectives in the last two years the sector has lost 12 million Euros.
Why has this happened? Because the demand for cork, particularly from the wine industry, which increasingly uses plastic corks or screw tops for its wine bottles, has dropped dramatically.
Cork production is a major industry in this area of Andalucía and an important source of income in the Serranía de Ronda, in particular in Ronda itself, Gaucín, Cortes de la Frontera and the villages of the Genal valley. In Málaga province as a whole there are around 12,000 hectares of cork oak forests.
Can anything be done to save the cork industry? Apart from producers appealing to bottlers to return to the traditional cork and the likes of you and me boycotting “non-corked” wines, probably not.
The Cork Oak (quercus suber) is a medium-sized, evergreen oak tree native to southwest Europe and northwest Africa. Cork Oak forests (alcornocales) occupy around 10,000 square kilometres on the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal), which represents more than half of the world’s total expanse of cork forest.
Natural stands of Cork Oak can support diverse eco-systems. For example, in Portugal and Spain, the Cork Oak forests are home to endangered species such as the Iberian Lynx, the most critically threatened feline in the world.
The tree has a thick, insulating bark that may have been the Cork Oak’s evolutionary answer to forest fires. After a fire, most tree species merely regenerate from seeds or resprout from the base of the burnt tree. The Cork Oak branches, however, protected by their bark, quickly resprout and recompose the tree canopy. The quick regeneration of the tree seems to be an advantage compared to other species, which, after a fire, go back to square one, so to speak.
The bark can be harvested every 9 to 12 years to produce cork. The harvesting of cork does not harm the tree, since no trees are cut down during the harvesting process. Only the bark is extracted, and a new layer of cork re-grows, making it a renewable resource.
Cork Oaks live for between 150 and 250 years. Virgin cork is the first cork cut after a tree is about 25 years old. Another 9 to 12 years is required for the second harvest, and a tree can be harvested 12 times in its lifetime. Cork harvesting is done manually using a small axe and is a skilled job..
Despite the downturn in demand wine corks represent 15% of cork usage by weight but 66% of revenues.
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