There's a lot of talk these days about the impacts of climate change on wine. Weather patterns are shifting, volatility of weather continues to increase, and yes, temperatures continue to rise in some areas of the globe, pushing harvests earlier and earlier.
Most of these discussions focus on the impact to grape growing, but a recent study shows that another component of the wine world may be under threat from climate change: corks.
Over the past twenty years, cork bark has been getting thinner and thinner. According to a group of researchers at the University of Lisbon, who published findings in the Journal of Experimental Botany a few weeks ago, the culprit may be climate change.
This team analyzed the composition of the bark of high-performing trees and low-performing trees, and came to the conclusion that the difference between them was the presence of what they call heat shock proteins, compounds that help the higher performing trees deal with environmental stresses such as drought and high temperature spikes.
The low performing trees had lower levels of these proteins, but much higher levels of the phenolic compounds that are associated with UV protection (as well as more genes to produce them), which the researchers seemed to think were in response to environmental pressures. In addition, these trees not only produced thinner bark (which means they can't be used for more premium corks), the cork itself had far more lenticular channels, which are highly undesirable in wine corks due to their tendency to let oxygen through.
None of this spells good news for the cork industry, which exists in a perpetually embattled state already thanks to the growing popularity of alternative closures. There's talk of trying to clone those trees that seem to have more genetic resistance, or genetically modifying the cork tree to produce more heat shock proteins, but that kind of solution probably lies a decade or more in the future. And then we need to grow the trees themselves. The average cork oak needs to be 25 years old before it can reliably produce an annual cork harvest.
Should the quality of cork production continue to decline, prices will rise steeply in the short term, and the market will quickly move to cheaper alternatives, which may mean a faster decline in cork usage, and a flight to alternative closures.
If climate change continues to drive winegrowers into higher and lower latitudes (Norwegian wine anyone?), perhaps someone should be establishing cork plantations in the Languedoc. In fact, that might be the perfect occupation for many of the frustrated winegrowers in southern France. Instead of blowing up wineries, they could plant cork trees.
Image of cork oak tree courtesy of Bigstock
A wine book like no other. Photographs, essays, and wine recommendations. Learn more.
Warm Up: The North Fork of Long Island I'll Drink to That: Kareem Massoud of Paumanok Vineyards 2015 Family Winemakers Tasting: August 16, San Francisco I'll Drink to That: Ryan Looper of T. Edward Wines Lost Treasures in the Sierra Foothills: The Wines of Renaissance Vineyards Warm Up: The Wachau I'll Drink to That: Leo Alzinger of Weingut Alzinger Petaluma Gap Wine Tasting: August 8th, Petaluma, CA I'll Drink to That: Monica Samuels of Vine Connections Vinography Images: Cool Climate Chardonnay
Wine Will Never Smell the Same Again: Luca Turin and the Science of Scent Forlorn Hope: The Remarkable Wines of Matthew Rorick Debating Robert Parker At His Invitation Passopisciaro Winery, Etna, Sicily: Current Releases Should We Care What Winemakers Say? The Sweet Taste of Freedom: Austria's Ruster Ausbruch Wines 2009 Burgundy Vintage According to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Charles Banks: The New Man Behind Mayacamas Wine from the Caldera: The Incredible Viticulture of Santorini Why Community Tasting Notes Sites Will Fail Chateau Rayas and the 2012 Vintage of Chateauneuf-du-Pape A Life Indomitable: The Wines of Casal Santa Maria, Portugal Bay Area Bordeaux: Tasting Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernets Forgotten Jewels: Reviving Chile's Old Vine Carignane The First-Timer's Guide to Les Trois Glorieuses of Hospices de Beaune