The cork forests of Portugal

Cork forests of Portugal, Le Monde d'HermesA version of this article, translated into nearly a dozen languages, was published in Le Monde d’Hermès in Spring 2014


For centuries, the region of Alentejo in Portugal has produced much of the world’s cork, the land consisting of dry, rolling hills that have long been cultivated, though never easily.  It is hard, beautiful, unforgiving terrain and its farmers have learned to accommodate its rhythms rather than fight them.  Still, a cork oak’s first quarter century produces little more than impatience in its owner.  Then comes the first harvest of the bark, but this is of no value.

There are another nine years to wait for the second harvest.  From May to July or August, the cork oak secretes a resin that loosens the bark from the trunk and these few months are the only time the cork can be harvested.  Using a metal bar with a flat end like an axe, the extractors (as the harvesters are called) make a lateral cut below the level of the branches and a series of vertical cuts to just the right depth in order not to puncture the wood and injure the tree; then, the bark is carefully pried loose.  When the bark is stacked ten or twenty feet high on pallets it resembles oversized curls of cinnamon.  But this second harvest, too, is likely to produce a cork of little use, leaving a gnarled, bare-trunked tree with bark-enshrouded branches whose newly exposed wood is yellow or orange, gradually turning dark brown with age.

A number is marked on the trunk to indicate the year of harvest but only the last digit is required because the bark cannot be harvested again for nearly a decade.  The forest, then, becomes a field of digits, markers of time that are also a measure of a certain timelessness.  More years must pass.  The roots of the cork oak extend below ground to a multiple of the tree’s height above it, allowing it to draw out whatever water exists in the parched, sandy, inhospitable terrain of Alentejo.  In this way, the cork oak secures land that might otherwise become marginal, perhaps even desert; as it is, the cork forest serves as a sanctuary for migratory birds and a shelter for animals and insects.

The tree, carefully tended, can live for two centuries or more; slowly, during these years, the bark builds from within as the resin runs down the wood.  This resin, solidifying in layers, transforms into light, impermeable, flame retardant cork that pushes out from the trunk so that the marked digit will still be visible, nine years later, when the third harvest begins.  Now, at last, the owner may have a cork that can be sold.  Still, it is probably not yet of the finest quality, so it may be one or two or three harvests more – the original owner passed on and the children taking over – before a dense, uniform, flawless cork is produced that can be made into the small stopper for a bottle of wine.  These long years and nature’s alchemy create in cork a unique cell structure that exhibits an elastic memory: squeeze a stopper of cork into a bottle and, when removed, it will revert to its original shape.  In an early-19th century shipwreck, bottles of champagne sealed with cork were sunk off the coast of Finland and when they were recovered centuries later the champagne was still preserved and the stopper retained its familiar mushroom shape. It is the force of this cellular memory perpetually pressing against the interior of the bottle’s neck that produces the seal.

But does the cork breathe?  This is an eternal question, much debated.  A cork that allows in too much oxygen from outside the bottle would destroy the wine, so perhaps it is instead the minute amounts of oxygen trapped in the cork cells themselves secreting, slowly, into the wine that accounts for the great metamorphosis by which a thin, immature wine evolves into something aged and complex.  The cork oak gained wisdom in its long years of growth and now, like a parent to a child, passes it on to the still-young wine within its care.


Click here to see all of Sean’s blog posts about Europe.  Or here to see others in this Hermès series from Europe, including an encounter with a master Dutch typographerthe strange fishing platforms of Abruzzo and the Basque sport of pelota.


Sean also shot the photographs for this article. Click images below to view the tear sheets.

Cork forests of Portugal, Le Monde d'Hermes, coverThe cork forests of Portugal, Le Monde d'Hermes, text and photos by Sean Rocha, p1-2The cork forests of Portugal, Le Monde d'Hermes, text and photos by Sean Rocha, p3-4