The Romans had first used corks in wine bottles before AD 200, but the practice fell out of favor for some reason and was forgotten for about fourteen centuries. During the medieval era, bottlers used a twisted cloth, leather or sealing wax.
Finally, wine corks were reinvented in the early 16th century, soon enough for Shakespeare to write in As You Like It, “Take thy cork out of thy mouth, that I may drink thy tidings.” Still, many winemakers preferred glass stoppers because they found, as one complained, that “much liquor is being absolutely spoiled by the defect of the cork.” Cork-induced spoilage is still a big headache, with about 8 percent of all corked wine being damaged to some degree.
Bottlers pushed corks only halfway in to make it possible to get them out again. Uncorkers wouldn’t be invented for many more decades. The first mention of “bottlescrews” was recorded in 1681; they weren’t called “corkscrews” until 1720.
Corks are very elastic because they’re filled with more than 300 million tiny air-filled cells. A cork can be compressed enough to get it into a bottle, yet it will immediately spring back to fill any gaps around the edge. They keep their structural integrity for up to fifty years before going brittle and crumbly.
About 75 percent of the wine corks in the United States come from Portugal – over 360 million a year. They’re made from the four-inch-thick, fire-resistant bark of the cork oak, a slow-growing evergreen. Every ten years, the trees are almost completely stripped of bark, leaving only enough to ensure that the tree will survive. A tree can be stripped twelve to fifteen times during its natural life span.
The sheets of cork are stacked to dry for three months. They’re then boiled in fungicides, dried again and cut into bottle-sized tapered cylinders that cost wine bottlers abut 20 to 40 cents each. That’s sometimes more than the wine itself cost to make.
Screw tops are better and cost only a nickel each. Synthetic corks are also better at sealing bottles than corks. However, many consumers have resisted both, wrongly believing that a cork somehow indicates a good bottle of wine.
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