Day 09: Today We Put a Cork in It

Today we enjoyed a leisurely morning, breakfasting on the terrace by the pool before moving to our veranda to consider options for the day. Word on the street was there is a cork factory nearby, and we wanted a piece of that action. Jim fired off a quick email to the company for details, and before too long his phone was ringing and a lovely woman on the other end invited us to join the 2pm tour. Done.

Sofa made of cork textile.  It was soft and supple, and not a single cow was harmed to make it.

Sofa made of cork textile. It was soft and supple, and not a single cow was harmed to make it.

That settled, we got going around 11am and headed east into the nearby seaside town of Lagos. This town was bustling with activity, mostly of the tourist sort. We strolled around for a bit before moving right along, as we had a very important appointment to keep and didn’t know exactly where we were going – but knew we’d need time to get near it, get a little bit lost, and then finally get there.

We drove east, 2/3 the width of Portugal to the town of S. Bras de Alportel. Amazingly, we drove almost directly to the place, the Novacortica Cork Factory, and had enough time to kill to swing into a grocery store for a light lunch. Returning to the factory, we were buzzed into the main gate, parked the car, and checked in at the office promptly at 2pm (tour is €12.50/person).

Cork bark is boiled to clean it up, then flattened to become workable.  That's all the processing it needs.

Cork bark is boiled to clean it up, then flattened to become workable. That’s all the processing it needs.

It was during check in that we noticed… we were the only ones there. Could it be? Would it be? Yes, it could, and it was. It was a tour for two, and what commenced over the next 2 hours was outstanding. We were schooled by Vanda, the incredibly engaging, affable, and well-informed guide of the Novacortica factory tour, and she filled our heads with loads of fascinating information about a material we never really gave much thought to before, but knew we’d better use otherwise rings grew on our tables. She also patiently answered all of our questions (which is why the tour ran longer than usual), as one of us, especially, had a lot of them.


I couldn’t possibly share all of the information we learned here – I’m not sure the internet has enough room – but I will leave you with some highlights:

  •  The little country of Portugal produces over 50% of the world’s cork
  • You plant a cork tree, then you have to wait 25 years before you can harvest the first round of bark. The cork from this first harvest is crummy, so you wait another 9 years minimum before you can harvest again. But this cork is second harvest crummy, too, so you wait another 9 years minimum before the good stuff starts rolling in. Then, and only then, are you in the cork business.

    Much like the seabird of the Algarve, each of Novacortica's cork disks have their picture taken and are analyzed for quality and grade

    Much like the seabirds of the Algarve, each of Novacortica’s cork disks have their picture taken and are analyzed for quality and grade

  • The trees can live to be 250 years old
  • Cork bark is harvested by hand, and one false slip means curtains for the tree
  • Novacortica primarily manufactures cork disks that they sell to champagne makers to use for their stoppers. A champagne stopper starts out rather large and they have to stuff it into the bottle, which is part of the reason there is so much pop when you release it – and why it will never fit into the bottle again. It’s kind of like stuffing your fist into an air hose.  If you boiled the champagne cork, Vanda said it would return to its original cylindrical shape and size.
  • Most cork stoppers are made from one or two cork disks on the bottom, cork granules that have been glued together in the middle, and a cork disk on top. The whole thing is polished so you can’t really tell that it’s multifaceted.  Only the finest wines have stoppers made of one whole piece of cork.
  • The US wine industry tried growing cork but it was a bust. Then they switched to mostly using plastic corks (or twist tops), which has had a rippling effect to the cork-heavy Portuguese economy.

You see, cork is so much more than coasters and bulletin boards. The finished product is natural, soft, sustainable, mostly fire resistant, durable, and water resistant, and I left wishing everything was made of cork.

Lazy Luz

Lazy Luz

It was early evening by the time we left S. Bras de Alportel, and with heads slightly heavier due to what we learned, we drove back to Luz for a walkabout along the seaside promenade in this quiet village. The sun was setting, the sky was all beautiful, and I was able to add several shots to my Seabird Series. We stopped for a quick bite at a sub-par pizzeria before heading back to the room to determine where we might find ourselves tomorrow, as we were checking out of our paradise. Although we’d love to stay, we’ve got a lot more Portugal to see… and for a country roughly the size of Indiana, it suddenly appeared to be mammoth.

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