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Here it is... the February 2002 issue of Sips!
The Grape Vine And The Cork Tree

The grape vine and the cork tree both have their roots (literally) in the soil of the Mediterranean, and in this monthís edition of SIPS weíll explore this convenient and historic partnership. Cork trees grow on the coast of the western Mediterranean, in Portugal, Spain, Provence, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and even Algeria and Tunisia. Although Spain has the largest area of cork trees planted, the majority of cork from all over the world is processed in Portugal. As with wine, each cork region produces cork with different characteristics, and Portugalís most prized cork region is Evora. The bark of the cork tree yields commercially viable cork only after its 25th year. In Portugal, cork trees are stripped of their bark, from which wine corks are made, only every nine years. The older the tree, the more cork it will yield, and the average life expectancy of a cork tree is somewhere between 150-175 years. So cork farming is an even longer-term undertaking than growing grape vines, most of which have an active life of around 25-30 years (although there are notable exceptions, like the 100-year-old Zinfandel vines still producing in California).

How Corks Are Made

After cork bark is stripped from the tree, the strips are stacked and left outside for seasoning for at least six months. The cork is then left in strips and boiled to make it more flexible and to kill off contaminants. These planks are then left in the warehouse for three weeks before being sorted and cut into strips as wide as the length of the final wine cork. Corks are then punched out of these strips, often by hand-operated punches. The top and bottom of the wine cork is then polished to make a smooth surface. And finally, the corks are treated either with chlorine bleach or hydrogen peroxide to provide greater hygiene and make the corks look more appealing. Corks are then graded, branded and often coated with a paraffin or silicon to increase the ease of extraction.

Clues From Your Cork

In general, if a cork is narrow and somewhat misshapen, that means itís been in the bottle for a long time. So if youíre lucky enough to be drinking an older vintage of a fine red wine, donít worry if the cork looks slightly odd. Many corks are branded with the name of the wine producer, and even the vintage. If your cork has crystals on the end that has been in contact with the wine, donít worry. These crystals are harmless tartrates. Usually, when a wine is first opened, the cork should be damp on one side and dry on the other. This is a sign that the wine was stored properly on its side and that no leakage occurred. If your wine smells distinctly musty or moldy (a smell sometimes compared to that of wet newspapers), thereís a chance that the wine may be ďcorkedĒ. Corked wines result when the bleaching of the cork leads to the development of the chemical 246-TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) in the wine. This is a relatively rare occurrence.

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