Winemaker Paul Steinauer recently traveled to Portugal for a behind-the-scenes look into the cork-making process and the operations of Flora Springs’ cork supplier. Here’s a peek into how corks are made.
First, a cork harvester carefully strips the cork bark from the tree.
Then the cork bark dries out on pallets for several months.
After drying, the cork goes into stainless steel tanks where it is submerged in water to be rinsed, cleaned and re-hydrated.
Then, the tops and bottoms of the outer bark is removed by a stripping machine.
And the bark is cut to the proper width.
After each cork is individually punched out of the bark, it is run through a machine that measures its density, and therefore its ability to contain liquid. If it does not meet a specific density, it is discarded.
Our supplier selects cork lots from only the top-quality manufacturers, and then hauls the lots to their facility to undergo additional quality control. They test for appearance and perform a sensory analysis. The corks are warmed to enhance any odor compounds that may be present. They are looking for Trichloroanisole (TCA), which is better known as cork taint and can damage the wine—as well as any other negative odor compounds. If any negative compounds are detected, the entire lot is returned to the manufacturer.
Random samples from various lots are then placed in these small bottles to undergo a soak test. This test will detect any TCA that may not have been found during smell testing.
Once the lots have passed all quality control requirements, samples from each lot are archived at the supplier’s headquarters. If we ever discover a problem with a number of corks, the supplier can reference the problem corks with samples from the same lot to determine what issues may be present.
A great deal of work goes into the cork-making process, every cork is handled approximately ten times by the time it is approved for use. The “simple” wine cork is an expensive part of the overall wine packaging costs, but necessary to ensure the quality we expect to protect our wines.
Five Fun Facts:
Cork trees are oak trees.
Cork bark is harvested from 35 – 200 year old trees.
For most 750mL closures, the bark is harvested every seven years.
Most premium corks are harvested in Portugal; Spain is the only other significant producer.
All of the corks Flora Springs uses are harvested in Portugal.
Now that you have acquired an older wine, often referred to as a library wine, you might be asking, “How do I open this without making a mess of the cork?”—or—“What’s the best way to serve this wine once opened?”
First, the basics—it’s natural that a cork will soften with age. It’s also natural that a wine may develop some sediment as it ages. Well fear not, with the proper tools and technique, you shouldn’t have too much difficulty.
Let’s go through the steps.
1) First, store your bottle in an upright position several days prior to opening, preferably in a cool location. Doing so will allow any suspended sediment to settle at the bottom of the bottle.
2) Next, choose the cork extractor you prefer—here are my recommendations:
Best – The Durand is a two-pronged wine opener—also known as an “Ah-So”—but with a built-in corkscrew. This is not an inexpensive item, but if you open a lot of older wines it could be a nice addition to your cellar.
Good – A standard two-pronged cork puller is also known as an “Ah-So.” Gently insert the longer tip between the glass and the cork, and gently rock back and forth until it is fully inserted in the bottle. Then slowly twist—while pulling up at same time.
Good – A pressurized cork extractor (like Cork Pops) is a device comprised of a needle and a carbon dioxide cartridge. Center the needle in the cork and penetrate it all the way through, then press the cartridge until the cork extracts. Hint: It’s best to cover the neck of bottle with a napkin or paper towel, as sometimes a bit of wine and/or sediment can also be extracted when under pressure.
OK – A corkscrew with a long, grooved shaft will make extracting an older, soft cork easier than using a shorter corkscrew without the grooving. Make sure it is centered directly in the cork, then twist it well into the cork. Be sure to pull up slowly.
If none of these methods work for you, as a last, last resort, find a blunt instrument that is narrower that the cork. Put the bottle in a sink and then place a plastic bag (or something similar) over the bottle neck. Then slowly and carefully push the cork down until it is no longer blocking the neck of the bottle. Hint: You definitely want something covering the opening of the bottle—as the wine will have a tendency to push upwards and out as the cork is pushed down.
3) Now that you have the cork out, you are ready to serve your wine.
Best – Carefully and slowly pour the wine into a decanter. Once you start to see sediment, stop pouring.
OK – If you don’t have a decanter, line up your wine glasses on a counter. Take a glass in one hand, and carefully pour the wine with the other hand. Be sure to keep the neck of the bottle in the same position, and fill the next glass…and so on. Hint: You want to minimize turning the bottle upright as doing so will disturb the sediment that has settled into the bottom of the bottle.
4) Maybe you didn’t have time to let the bottle sit upright for a few days, or perhaps you see pieces of cork floating in the bottle. As a last, last resort, you can pour the wine through a fine screen or coffee filter to a decanter, or even a pitcher. If you don’t want to serve from that vessel, you can always rinse out the wine bottle well, and pour the now-filtered wine back into it.
5) Remember, most older wines only require decanting to ensure that the wine is clear—not to allow the wine to “open up” or “breathe.” Library wines do not need more oxygen at this point.
6) Also, I recommend you serve and drink the wine soon after opening. The older the bottle, the sooner you will want to drink it to retain as much fruit expression as possible.
When John Komes bottled Flora Springs’ first Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon – the Rutherford Hillside Reserve in 1989 – it became a benchmark for Napa Valley Cabernet, bringing awareness to the concept of site-specific wines. Since then Flora Springs has enhanced its Single Vineyard Program, and today we offer five elegant and powerful wines that reflect the small vineyard sites and even individual blocks in which they are grown – wines so outstanding they deserve to be bottled on their own.
The idea for “Flora’s Five Cuts and Five Cabs” dinner—which has been one of our most popular events since its inception four years ago—is a nod to John’s early days of selling these Single Vineyard Cabernets. Back then he developed a successful winemaker dinner pairing each Cabernet with a specific cut of premium beef. He found that the words used to describe the texture and tenderness of a steak enhanced the understanding and enjoyment of Cabernet. In true John fashion, he was well ahead of his time, and his innovative concept is still relevant today.