By: Skip Bandele
PORTUGAL – when you think about Europe’s south-westerly most country, holidays spring to mind – after all, Praia da Rocha in the Algarve was one of the first popular tourist destinations of the 19th century.
It remains so, albeit in a grossly altered form to this day, but there are endless beaches, uninterrupted sunshine, vast expanses of open sea and there is always a glass of vinho verde available as the carefree day gives way to yet another balmy night.
More discerning souls may point to over 40 years of a superficially benign Salazar dictatorship, kept in place by a subtle degree of secret police terror, forcing millions of ordinary people to opt for a new life abroad. They are still departing in hordes, albeit for different reasons, giving way to migrants from more inclement, but affluent climes.
Economic and intellectual suppression, suddenly ended by the revolution in 1974, have left behind a lasting legacy (in those remaining), instilling both a sense of being different, as well as an unshakable feeling of inferiority. However, underlying pride is there too, as is the Republic’s National Guard, the GNR, jackboots and all.
Portugal is a strange and diverse country, divided by climate and socio-economic differences, united by a common eagerness to make up for lost time, often to the detriment of those seeking to benefit from the daily quest for modernisation. The old days, fondly remembered by those fortunate enough to have experienced them, have irrevocably gone, doors and bicycles can no longer be left safely unlocked, respect and universal kindness are becoming less and less commonplace.
The cultures of Fado, football and saudades are still an undercurrent, part of a mentality that tends to embrace the futility of life all too readily. However, these manifestations of the past, these character traits are being just as much threatened by extinction, as is another intrinsically Portuguese bastion – the cork.
Wine and cork are both found in abundance in this part of the world – in fact, Portugal is the largest exporter of the latter globally, while its vintages are beginning to gain aficionados on a similar scale, featuring more and more in trade magazines and on foreign supermarket shelves.
Similar to the immense variety of cheese available in all shapes and sizes, complementing a huge array of bread, green, white and, in particular, red Portuguese wines are in the process of receiving the kind of recognition they deserve.
But, spare a thought for that essential component involved in their preservation, shaped from carefully harvested layers of a very special kind of tree bark, the aforementioned cork. It too, is in danger of becoming a victim of the hurried entry into the 21st century.
Doubling up as a part-time wine waiter during school and university holidays, I was always told that wine needs to breathe, the cork stuck in the neck of many an intriguing receptacle, which provided the source of the noble nectar’s life, if not the centre point of an opening ceremony that has often giving rise to much hilarity. The practical aspects of life have, and still do, present me with an unending sequence of challenges I am still at conflict with, as my brain tells me one thing and my hands follow a completely different course of action.
Many pristine white shirts have been ruined in the course of my struggles to gain access to a particularly well-guarded drop of Bacchus’s blessing, the humour not lost on anyone but my inadvertent victims – no doubt the domestic garment industry would have been saved from the Chinese had I persevered. However, this segment of my fondest memories, of Portugal’s very lifeblood is apparently now to be wiped clean … um, out.
Jacob’s Creek is to blame for this disaster-in-waiting by all accounts – one of the world’s biggest wine brands deciding to substitute traditional corks with screw-caps – and others are following suit. Whatever next? Whisky in cans, champagne in tetra-packs or even beer in plastic bottles? I’ve tried the Aldi version, it is putrid unless kept in the freezer for a week.
Cork — The whiff of progress has wine lovers everywhere up in arms, heated debates raging far and wide, not dissimilar to those surrounding the path that the Portuguese way of life has taken. Threatening to do away with the romance of ‘hints of saddle leather’ or ‘the perfume of gooseberries in a hay field’ (not to mention Fawlty Toweresque adventures with a priceless 1953 Chateau I-don’t-know-what), the innovative ‘Stelvin’ – aluminum bottle top to you and me – has become a major bone of contention.
The ongoing war between the two camps of connoisseurs of the fermented grape can be seen as a battle between modernists and traditionalists, infidels and heathens versus incorrigible snobs, hopeless romantics – or can it?
The former, trying not to become over-antagonistic in their approach smacking of rationalisation, claim that wine-making (and consumption, for one would not exist without the other) is a chemical process, not a poetry competition. Is it though?
Yes, the horrid substance that most commonly sends the sommelier marching from the table with a disdainfully upturned nose, is a chemical compound that goes by the distinctly prosaic name two, four, six-trichloran-isole (TCA for short), but is its origin, a reaction between cleaning agents and mould formed on the cork, responsible for that ‘corked’ dull and musty smell, not part of the great hedonistic adventure?
Since when has perfection ever been fun or in the remotest bit interesting? Ok, the cork is not perfect, a less than optimal fit allowing air, which causes oxidization, to be admitted – its screw-top rival ensures wine is preserved in peak condition – in theory.
In defence of the ‘Followers of the Cork’, blindfolded Wine Challenge tasters recently found that one in 50 ‘clinically’ sealed bottles were also ‘off’ – imagine the horror among avant garde revolutionaries!
Two reasons for this phenomenon have been given by apologists: New World wine producers often add wood chips during production to give depth of flavour, resulting in mustiness of the end product, screw-capped wines can build up nasty, eggy odours due to an accumulation of sulphides. Cork would allow these to disperse over time, ‘screws’ don’t – take your pick!
Amid these claims and counterclaims, only one thing is certain – for every ‘corkist’, who says the traditional method is best, a ‘Stelvinist’ will disagree.
And then there is the third alternative, the synthetic corks. But I won’t waste any space on them, as they not only give wine a nasty plastic taste, in addition to being extremely difficult to extradite, but they are also impossible to push back in, the attempt to do so reminiscent of trying to give birth in reverse – not that I would know what that is like, although I do have a very vivid imagination!
My conclusion, then …. Screw-tops are for alcoholics – you simply whisk off desire’s hindrance with a minimum of fuss and drink – no problem. The addict does not want to find himself attempting to push the cork (or what is left of it) in with a spoon or other blunt object, only to lapse into renewed fits of frustration-induced sobbing, as floating remnants of the offending and stubborn object lodge in his throat instead of that of the bottle. Cork lovers take their time as the bouquet in front of them unfolds, promising an experience to be savoured.
If you are not one of those people who spits out everything you are supposed to drink in the name of art, both camps will end up more or less tipsy – but it is classier to have removed a real cork first. Further considerations, the Portuguese economy apart, are the environmental consequences of letting uncouth guzzlers have their way.
Rebecca May of the World Wildlife Fund (her drinking habits are unknown to me), says: “The cork oak forests could face a crisis unless we take action to secure their future.” These tracts of unspoiled countryside are not only home to rare flora, but also support endangered species, such as the Spanish imperial eagle, the black vulture and the Iberian lynx. So when you next reach for that bottle, make sure there is a cork in it. You are doing your bit towards preserving the Portuguese way of life.