Another European Wineblggers Conference has come and gone….sigh…it just flew by! Before I knew it, I was back winging my way back to Heathrow. But in between landing and take off at Lisbon’s Portela Airport I met some of the nicest people, saw the most amazing scenery and had some pretty good wine to boot!
For me, the highlight of the weekend, not including the tour of the Douro Valley which was AFTER the conference, was the visit to the cork forests north of Lisbon, hosted by the Quinta do Lagoalva in the Tejo appellation and sponsored by Amorim, who produced a quarter of the cork in the world, something like 60 BILLION corks a year and that’s not even counting all the other things that can be made out of cork.
We left Lisbon early Saturday morning a bit worse for wear not having had our morning coffee and set off for the province of Tejo and the old cork forests scattered about. To call them forests is a bit of a misnomer as they’re more like orchards, the trees being oak and planted in more or less straight lines but they are old, most of the trees over 100 years old and most live up to 200 years or more. Cork trees are fascinating. They’re only harvested after they reach 25 years of age and the cork ,called virgin cork, is not of suitable quality to be used for as cork stoppers. The tree is then harvested periodically, every 9 years until it reaches around the age of 40 when the cork can finally be used to make cork stoppers. The cork from the previous harvests is not wasted but put to use in a myriad of other items, including tiles on the Space Shuttle. Pretty cool, cork is used to insulate the Space Shuttle on re-entry. Our guide from Amorim, Carlos de Jesus was a font of information regarding cork and told us that cork has a very high tolerance for heat, the bark protecting the inner tree allowing it to regenerate again after a fire.
We went to trees owned by the Quinta do Lagoalva and were even treated to a demonstration of cork stripping by one of the old hands of the farm. Luckily for us, a tree had been struck by lightening so it was a willing volunteer for the demonstration. The art of cork stripping has to be precise because if the axman cuts too deeply, he leaves a scar which will not heal, thus impeding the production of the whole cork bark. Here is a quick demo of how it’s done….
After a visit to the cork orchard, we went to the Quinta do Lagoalva and were treated to a tasting of the local wines made by, for lack of a better description, The Tejo Boys. They had a variety of wines on tasting for us, including some delicious, dry roses, as well as robust reds and some full bodied whites. The wines were of excellent quality. I especially liked a sweet wine that one of the wine makers made from a blend of arinto, riesling and gweurztraminer. The unique quality of that wine was that it had been made on frozen lees. That sounded quiet an original thing to do with the lees until the winemaker told us that the lees were frozen because he forgot about them and they froze over the winter! Funny guy.
We were also treated to a carriage ride around the estate and visited 200 year old olive trees! Seems that cork is not the only thing that is Methusalem in character in Portugal. I even saw a 300 year old olive tree. If those trees could talk….
After lunch we all piled back on the bus and headed off to Amorim’s cork factory about an hour away. That was an awesome site to say the least. Piles and piles of cork bark, walls of cork, waves of cork, mountains of cork. I’ve never seen such an impressive display. We all ran around like kids in a candy store, taking pictures, pinching and prodding the cork. Carlos explained the whole process of how cork is cured outdoors for a year before it even gets into the factory floor. Then it goes thru a soaking and cleaning process and all sorts of other technical stuff but I got a little antsy and wandered off to photograph the mountains of cork. The cork industry has really cleaned up their act, so to speak, and the entire process to make cork stoppers is done to ensure that there be as little possibility of cork taint or TCA as possible. Below is a brief slideshow of the cork forest and our visit to the Amorim’s cork factory.
A fabulous day out of Lisbon and a rare opportunity to see and learn about cork. Call me a geek but I really enjoyed my trip to the cork forest.