Stripping and the Cork Trees in Portugal

Cheers from Alentejo, Southern Portugal

Let this be a lesson in self-control.

I was way too excited to finally be in Portugal. As a result - I consumed a little too much wine on the first night out. I blame this lack of restraint on covid and the 3 years away from Europe!

Also - my dad played a part in my untimely demise.

That bottle of wine was supposed to be for the two of us. But he got swayed by traditional grappa leaving me to fend for myself.

Bottle of red Alentejo wine at restaurant in EvoraThe bottle of red Alentejo that lead to my downfall

It was me against the bottle of a muscular Alentejo red. I didn’t stand a chance.

The following day I paid for it dearly. I was too inebriated to get up for a cork trekking tour - the most anticipated activity of the entire Portugal trip.

While I engaged in mental self-flagellation my party went on without me. And came back excited and enlightened.

Cork oak inside Almendres CromlechCork oak tree inside the ancient Almendres Cromlech. Number 2 means the bark was harvested in 2022.

Cork trees in Portugal

Portugal produces 40% of the world’s cork - a unique material that is used everywhere - from space exploration to yoga studio flooring. But the most exciting application is obviously wine bottle closures!

Cork is basically the bark of a cork oak tree.

Cork oak tree in the vinesCork oaks and vines are fire resistant and provide the best fire protection in hot regions like Alentejo.
Crimson cork oak tree in PortugalFreshly stripped cork oak tree in Alentejo

Unlike plastic or screw cap wine closures, cork is a sustainable material. It is perfectly biodegradable.

And the cork oak tree doesn’t die after it gets stripped off its bark. After 9+ years it grows another layer ready to be harvested.

The newly stripped trunk turns crimson red - a gorgeous and disturbing site.

Portuguese cork oak stripped off the barkOnce stripped - the cork tree remains crimson red for around 2 years before darkening

Cork oak stripping - a form of art 

Those who do the stripping are called - quite appropriately - the strippers.

Stripping is a highly specialised profession that requires years of training. One wrong cut can damage a cork tree irrevocably.

Cork tree in PortugalNumber 8 means this tree was stripped off its bark in 2018
Damaged cork oakThis tree was damaged - the cut was too deep. It will never recover and will slowly die out.

Cork stripping is the highest-paid agricultural job in Portugal. And the most demanding.

Cork bark harvest happens in June-July. We were in Alentejo in October and we shrivelled up under the blistering sun into prunes and raisins.

Imagine how it feels for these guys to be working long days in the middle of the summer.

Average age of strippers is 65 years old. Young people aren’t interested in this kind of job. They prefer to sit in front of a computer all day. I would judge them, if I wasn’t one of them.

I got a newfound appreciation for each cork that I pop.

Cork trees in PortugalCork tree alley

Cork is a really cool material. Similar to bamboo - you can make anything out of it. From underwear to heat shields in rockets.

If you think I'm exaggerating, just visit one of the souvenir shops in Evora - you will see that the bark of a cork oak tree is ever-giving.

In addition to supplying tourists with tacky cork souvenirs and encouraging safe space exploration, cork oaks also sustain the famed Iberian pigs. The Black Iberian pigs are brought from Spain with the sole purpose of fattening them up on cork oak acorns.

They roam wildly in the cork oak farms, gaining weight and hope in humanity - until they are slaughtered. At least they get to really live a life!

Cork oak acorn in PortugalCork oak acorns - favourites of Iberian pigs and wild boars

Cork Trekking

For the cork tour we chose to go with the cork trekking adventure provided by Herdade da Maroteira - a winery and a cork oak farm.

My family sang nothing but praise of this cork trekking tour and brought me a bottle of their wine to soothe my aching soul.

I chased the echoes of my hangover and regrets with this rose, while enjoying the view over our own private tower in Evora.

Herdade da Maroteira wineHerdade da Maroteira wine with the view of the private tower.
Private tower in EvoraThe tower that unexpectedly came attached to our modest airbnb

Cork Trekking By Herdade Da Maroteira

Redondo, Portugal