THE ASTONISHING QUALITIES OF TIMELESS CORK
SHORT HISTORY OF CORK
The origins of the use of cork are lost in time, leveraged by different civilisations who, thousands of years BC, discovered the potential of the raw material from the cork oak (Quercus Suber L.) and used it in many functional everyday objects. The proof lies in the countless remnants found in some Mediterranean countries.
"For a material which has been used since antiquity, the chameleon-like versatility of cork is astonishing, thanks to its capacity for renewal and for adapting to new technological demands." The Chemistry of Cork, National Geographic
Ancient Egyptians used cork as a nautical utensil, for fishing and in domestic applications. Ahead of their time, they also chose it for the soles of their sandals, never imagining that the trend would feature in the fashion shows of the most prestigious fashion houses of the 21st century.
Roman civilisation continued to explore the virtues of cork in footwear, such as insoles, but broadened its horizons: it was used as a closure for amphorae to transport liquids and in their houses, to cover roofs and ceilings. Cork's thermal ability could already be seen at the time, which would later be confirmed by medieval monks, who used it to cover the walls of their quarters, for protection against the cold in the winter and the heat in the summer.
At the time of the Great Navigations, this raw material was applied in the Portuguese caravels which set sail to discover new worlds. In the recent past it was also used in military equipment in World War II.
Despite a multitude of uses, cork has always been very closely connected to wine. Although there are records of amphorae sealed with cork in the 3rd century BC. which contained wine in good condition, the major revolution in the wine industry only took place in the 17th century, with Dom Pérignon.
The French monk, who would become famous for his champagne, sought an alternative to the stoppers used at the time - wood wrapped in hemp soaked in olive oil -, which did not provide an effective seal, were dubious in the preservation of the wine and always popping out. The solution was cork. This choice fostered the growth of the wine and cork industries which have evolved together over hundreds of years. Nowadays, the cork stopper protects the best wines, from centenary wines to the most recent.
If Portugal is king of the castle in terms of world supply then the Alentejo region is prince, encompassing the largest cork forested area in Portugal. Montado has been proposed as World Heritage Site with its unique ecosystem.
Cork trees can be harvested every 9-12 years with a productive lifespan approx. 200 years, typically yielding enough cork for approx. 4000 bottles. Stripping the bark doesn’t require the tree to be cut down, indeed the cork tree is unique in that its bark can be stripped without killing the tree.
The potential of cork continues to be recognised in a world where innovation and ecology now go hand in hand, this material arouses the interest of an increasing number of sectors. Thus, one of the most ancient products in permanent use by humanity, continues to give life to new products and applications.
Possibly best known as bottle stoppers, the cork producing oak tree has a multitude of other properties and uses. Not least cork is environmentally friendly, floor coverings remain popular with a huge new range of super cool styles now available. Well known for their insulation and fire retarding properties they release low levels of CO2 release, add a real bonus.
Long known for its excellent insulation qualities, cork has been used in spacecraft. The structure being able to withstand temperatures over 1000 degrees and used in the nose cone and parts of the propulsions rockets, protecting the spacecraft from the spread of flames.
Other applications of cork include construction and architectural design, clothing, jewellery, footwear and furniture. Decoration, health and cosmetics, energy production, pollution control, and still more uses waiting to be discovered.
CORK – GOOD FOR YOUR HEALTH
When in contact with wine, cork stoppers form antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic compounds that may reduce the risk of heart and degenerative diseases. The University of Bordeaux also discovered cork stoppers pass those health-giving properties on to the wine.
Cork is also used for special effects in movies, thanks to its lightness the cork granules are used in special effects scenes to simulate explosions – think 'Mission Impossible'.
Waste from the cork industry produces composites used in vaccine adjuvants to enhance immune system response.
The cork floors we so well remember from the 80’s and 90’s are making a come back, with cork being the option of choice by architects awarded the Pritzker Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of Architecture.