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  • The Kings of Cork

  • Corks aren’t the first thing you think about when you buy wine. They usually only cross your mind when you get frustrated trying to open that bottle of red with the shoe trick you saw on the internet after you lost your corkscrew. But cork is more than the last line of defense for that wine bottle: It’s used in building insulation, musical instruments, even spaceships. And there’s no place in the world that has more cork trees than Portugal. Over 35% of all cork trees exist in Portugal, so farmers there have become essential to the production of cork—especially because it’s done almost completely manually. Machines haven’t been able to remove bark from cork trees yet, so workers handle the process in teams of two that carefully remove bark off the trees with axes and blades. The art of harvesting cork has been passed down from generation to generation because it requires a special manner of cutting to make sure the actual tree is not harmed. Cork trees live for over 200 years and can regrow their bark, so it’s important for the cork harvesters to only remove the bark and not kill the tree. But these workers are skilled in the craft and continue to use the same techniques of harvesting cork that have been used for centuries. Although the trees’ bark will grow again, cork is only harvested from a tree once every nine years to keep the tree healthy and growing. This means harvesting cork is incredibly sustainable and that wine corks are the most environmentally friendly means of stopping wine. Portugal’s production of cork, thankfully, will not be running out anytime soon. So next time you’re home from work late, trying to catch just one more episode of your favorite new binge-dwatch as you open a new bottle of rosé, thank cork for all it has done for you. This Great Big Story was inspired by Genesis.

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