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Staying power: Martin Symington takes in the beautiful surroundings of a traditional herdade in the Alejento region of southern Portugal and discovers why the rather old-fashioned cork industry has continued to thrive in the modern world.

The dawn is pink as Luis Dias, proprietor of Herdade das Barradas da Serra, gazes towards the horizon and lifts his hands to feel for moisture in the air. It's decision time: to strip, or not to strip.

Sashes of morning mist isolate tree-crowned hillocks that rise from the plain, but a warm breeze is wafting from the east and the clouds are high and tattered. Luis takes his mobile phone from his pocket, dials and issues his command: 'Vamos tirarja'--'We are going to strip now."

Soon the troupe of 20 or so tiradors de cortica--cork strippers--arrive on a lorry that Luis directs along an earthen track that loops up to an area of hillside blanketed with trees whose bark was last harvested exactly a decade ago. No mechanical means of stripping cork bark has been invented, so the job is done by these highly skilled men.

First, they make vertical cuts down the bark with small axes. Then they lever it away in pieces as large as they can manage. The most skilful of them prise away a semi-circular husk that runs the length of the trunk from just above ground level to the first branches; smaller pieces are worth less. All morning, they continue cutting and loading the cork onto trailers, which a tractor will tow back to the farm.

There it will dry on the ground for about four months, before being taken to factories belonging to Portugal's big cork corporations, where it's boiled to kill any remaining insects. The corks for use as wine stoppers will later be punched out of the sheets, bleached or otherwise treated, graded according to texture and appearance, then bagged and sold.

ONE OF A KIND

The cork oak is an extraordinary tree. It probably developed its thick bark as a defence against forest fires. The bark insulates the tree like a coat wrapped around the trunk and Ganches. keeping the inside at a constant 20[degrees]C all year round. If the bark is stripped when it's too cold--or when the air is damp--the tree will be damaged, which is why Luis is so particular about deciding when to cut.

The bark has a unique cellular structure--with about 40 million cells per cubic centimetre--that technology has never succeeded in replicating. The cells are filled with air. which is why cork is so buoyant. It also has an elasticity that means you can squash it and watch it spring back to its original size and shape when you release the pressure.

Cork oaks grow in a number of Mediterranean countries, including Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece and Morocco. They flourish in warm, sunny climates where there's a minimum of 400 millimetres of rain per year, and not more than 800 millimetres.

Like grape vines, the trees thrive in poor soil, putting down deep roots in search of moisture and nutrients. Sourthern Portugal's Alentejo region ticks all of these boxes, which explains why by the early 20th century, this region had become the world's largest producer of cork, and why today it accounts for roughly half of production around the world.

THE LONG GAME

After the morning's harvest, I sit down on the farmhouse verandah to sip a glass of chilled white wine with Luis and his wife. Elsa, surrounded by the sizzle of cicadas. 'To be a cork farmer, I have had to learn to be patient,' Luis says. 'This was the first thing my father taught me, and that my grandfather taught him.'

Herdade das Barradas da Serra, an 800-hectare estate that stretches out from the Grandola hills, was originally a gift from the king, and has been in the Dias family for five generations. 'From the planting of a cork sapling to the first harvest takes about 25 years,' Luis continues. 'But for top-quality cork suitable as stoppers for fine wine bottles, you have to wait a further 15 or 20 years. So when I plant a new cork tree, it isn't for my children--it's for my grandchildren. To have a cork farm is an agreement between generations.'

In fact, 53-year-old Luis isn't yet a grandfather, although his son, Francisco, currently a student in Lisbon, arrived for the weekend while I was there. Francisco displays every sign of intending to carry on the Dias dynasty, animatedly discussing plans for the estate's future. His inheritance, he understands, will necessarily involve diversification into other sources of income, of which more later.

ANCIENT ROOTS

First, however, Luis was keen to offer me a few glimpses into the part that this extraordinary product, cork, has played in the broad sweep of history. The first recorded usage was by the ancient Egyptians, who sealed sarcophagi with cork. The Romans and the Greeks found numerous uses for cork--anything from beehives and fishing buoys to sandals and roof insulation.

However, we need to fast-forward to around 1660, when a French Benedictine monk by the name of Dom Perignon first used cork for the purpose for which its name has become indelibly linked--as a stopper for wine bottles. According to legend, this monk was responsible for making sparkling wine at the Abbey of Sainte-Vannes in the Champagne region of northern France, and was having trouble keeping in the wooden plugs soaked in olive oil that were the stopper of choice at the time. He noticed that compressed cork returns to its original shape when pressure is released, making it ideal for wine bottles.

The practice boomed among the winemakers of Europe, and there's evidence of cork stoppers being widely used in Portugal during the mid-18th century, when cylindrical bottles with a uniform neck were first used for port wine in Oporto. Strict laws governing cork production have been in place in Portugal for more than 200 years. Cultivation is banned uphill from water courses, for instance. But more importantly, bark must only be harvested from mature, healthy trees and a gap of at least nine years must separate harvests from an individual tree.

'The great disaster for the cork industry in Portugal came in 1974,' says Luis abruptly. He's referring to the 'carnation revolution', which overthrew the right-wing dictatorship that had ruled the country for most of the century. Nowadays, the revolution is generally regarded as the event that led to more democratic and prosperous times, a milestone that marks Portugal's catching up with its European neighbours. However, its immediate aftermath was a chaotic time in the Alentejo.

ROCKY ROAD

By now, Luis and I have left the farmhouse to amble along dusty tracks through the silvery-green cork forests, stopping occasionally to pick the sweet, wild arbutus berries that grow in the underbrush. 'Cork estates across the Alentejo were expropriated, rather like the more recent land grabs in Mugabe's Zimbabwe,' Luis says. 'The worst of it was that trees were stripped unlawfully, before the cork was ready. We were a little bit luckier in that our herdade wasn't actually confiscated, but it was occupied by Communist brigades and pretty much destroyed.'

When the Dias family finally took back control of the estate during the late 1970s, it had to start, as Luis puts it, 'from a negative position', with ill-maintained trees and the farm run-down. But the problems didn't end there.

Recent years have seen the end of the virtual monopoly of cork as the material to stop wine as the global wine industry has increasingly become concerned about the phenomenon colloquially known as wine being 'corked'. More scientifically, this refers to a compound, 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), which forms through the interaction of plant phenols, chlorine and mould. It most frequently occurs in natural corks, and the tiniest concentrations--as little as three or four parts to a trillion--can taint wine with a musty smell and taste. Opinions vary as to the prevalence of TCA, but according to some wine experts, as many as one in every seven or eight bottles sold could be tainted.

The wine industry's response has been a gradual yet steady move first towards plastic stoppers and, more recently, to screw caps. While many drinkers of popular wine brands find the latter convenient, it's difficult to imagine that the thin rattle of metal being twisted will ever completely replace the promise-filled pop of a cork being drawn from a wine bottle with a corkscrew.

This, perhaps, is why Luis confidently declares his belief that 'yes, screw caps are cheap, and yes, with them there is no chance of a bottle being corked, but ultimately, I don't believe they are going to be a problem for the cork industry. First, many wine producers have reservations about what aluminium caps do for the image and appeal of their product and so are coming back to cork. Second--and this is very important--the ecological footprint [for cork] is far better than for aluminium or plastic.'

A NEED TO DIVERSIFY

Cork also has numerous other uses, from flooring and wall tiles to thermal insulation. It's also used widely in the construction industry, mixed into concrete. Such is the cork industry's importance to the Portuguese economy--it brings in revenue of some US$2billion a year and employs about 60,000 people--not to mention the cork forests' importance to biodiversity conservation, that the forests enjoy rigorous protection. Indeed, the total area of cork forest in the Alentejo has increased by four per cent during the past decade, according to the Portuguese cork growers' association, APCOR.

Nevertheless, during the past two decades, Herdade das Barradas da Serra has diversified. There are now about 600 sheep, raised for meat and for the delicious, creamy Alentejo ewe's-milk cheeses, grazing within the montado--the flatter areas of cork forest where the trees are less densely packed. A few silvery olive groves have also been planted for the production of high-quality oil, and the estate is also capitalising on the burgeoning worldwide demand for pine nuts by planting umbrella pines, which thrive in the Alentejo.

However, the Dias family made its most important decision when it decided to move into tourism. 'We needed to find another avenue by which we could prosper, and tourism also helps us to have a direct relationship with our clients,' says Luis.

Consequently, in 2009, Herdade das Barradas da Serra opened for business, offering bed-and-breakfast accommodation under Portugars Turismo em Espaco Rural scheme. There are now ten guest bedrooms--some in old converted farm buildings, others on a courtyard around a new swimming pool.

The setting is delightful, surrounded by cork forest and a meadow where chestnut horses graze, with the Grandola Hills as a backdrop. Guests can laze around the pool if they wish, looking out for azure-tipped magpies, or Bonelli's eagle with their two-metre wingspans. Or they can hike, or ride the estate's mountain bikes along marked trails through the forest, perhaps catching a glimpse of a rooting wild boar.

Either way, they can reflect with satisfaction that these cork forests are a sustainable resource that yield a renewable product and support the local biodiversity. As environmental footprints go, that's difficult to beat.

CO-ORDINATES PORTUGAL

Getting there

To get to the Alentejo you'll have to fly to Lisbon. Easyjet offers flights to Lisbon from both Gatwick and Luton from around 90 [pounds sterling] return. British Airways and Air Portugal also operate direct flights, from Heathrow and Gatwick respectively. Herdade das Barradas da Serra is about an hour's drive from Lisbon.

When to go

Herdade das Barradas da Serra is open all year round. The cork harvest takes place between June and August.

Further information

Herdade das Barradas da Serra: www.barradasdaserra.pt

Portuguese Cork Association: www.apcor.pt

Easyjet: www.easyjet.com

British Airways: www.ba.com

TAP Portugal: www.flytap.com
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Title Annotation:Travel: Portuguese cork
Comment:Staying power: Martin Symington takes in the beautiful surroundings of a traditional herdade in the Alejento region of southern Portugal and discovers why the rather old-fashioned cork industry has continued to thrive in the modern world.(Travel: Portuguese cork)
Author:Symington, Martin
Publication:Geographical
Geographic Code:4EUPR
Date:Apr 1, 2013
Words:1941
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