I’ve come to the little town of Céret in southwestern France, home of one of the two Diam cork factories--the second is located in Spain. As I make my way across the parking lot, an immense blue truck rolls in, with the words DIAM El corcho reinventado emblazoned on its side. Translation from the Spanish: “Cork Reinvented.” What I am about to learn during the next couple of days here in Céret, and later visiting a handful of wineries, is that… unbeknownst to many of us wine consumers…a sort of cork revolution has been going on.
Humans learned to put cork to good use early on. Because of its buoyancy, cork was used as early as 3000 BC to make life vests for fishermen as well as buoys for floating fishnets on the ancient Mediterranean Sea. Its low heat conduction inspired early Romans to make beehives out of cork. Thanks to its shock-absorbing qualities, cork-soled sandals were commonly worn, and its impermeability made corkwood planks good roofing material.
Because it is flexible, as well as impermeable, cork has long been used to seal vessels of wine. From the Roman poet Horace we learn that cork, sealed with pitch, sometimes served as a plug for amphorae filled with wine, but for hundreds of years stoppers made from rags, leather, clay, sealing wax, or wood were more commonly used to seal vessels of wine and olive oil until glass bottles came into widespread use by around the 18th century.
By the 1500s, glass closures were already being used on wine bottles, but glass was expensive as well as difficult to manufacture in the days when each stopper had to be made individually, and bottles were hand-blown one at a time. Extracting a glass stopper from its bottle could be a perilous undertaking as it was hard to accomplish the task without breaking either the bottle or the stopper, or both. Finally, by the late 1600s, it became possible to create glass bottles with a fairly uniform shape and design. And then, in the late 1700’s, corkscrews came along, setting the stage for cork to replace glass stoppers altogether. Once it was discovered that corks are able to effectively seal the wine in its bottle, thereby retarding the oxidation process and allowing the wine to age and evolve slowly over time, there was no turning back.