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36. Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel

"My good friend Gerry Dawes, the unbridled Spanish food and wine enthusiast cum expert whose writing, photography, and countless crisscrossings of the peninsula have done the most to introduce Americans—and especially American food professionals—to my country's culinary life. . .” - - Chef-restaurateur-humanitarian José Andrés, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Oscar Presenter 2019; Chef-partner of Mercado Little Spain at Hudson Yards, New York 2019


The Spanish Artisan Wine Group & Amorim Corks; A Cork Briefing from Amorim Cork Producers, Portugal

* * * * *
 Why Cork Stoppers in Bottles of Our 
Spanish Artisan Wine Group Wines Matter

Tubes of cork destined to become wine stoppers at Amorim in Portugal.
All photos by Gerry Dawes©2010. Contact for publication rights.

Will All Be Using Specially Selected Amorim Portuguese Corks
In Our Bottles Within Two Years of Being Selected Into the Group

We Will Guarantee Our Wines Against "Cork-taint" 100% 

And We Will Say So on Our Labels!

Carlos de Jesus of Amorim in Portugal explains the process of preparing cork 
that will be made in natural cork wine stoppers. 
All photos by Gerry Dawes©2010. Contact for publication rights.

Cork Briefing
(Courtesy of Amorim)

Slide show of Amorim cork production.
(Double click on images for enlarged version in Picasa; 
click on "slideshow" in the upper left-hand corner, then hit F11 for a full screen show.)


Portugal’s Cork Country

The Alentejo is a mystical place of gliding plains, sudden mountains, and the largest cork forests in the world. The Alentejo’s Cork Country is a lightly populated region with open horizons where the rhythm of life follows the rhythm of regional songs. And this fertile land produces more than half of the world's total cork supply.

Cork harvesting at Amorim in Portugal's Alentejo region. 
All photos by Gerry Dawes©2010. Contact

An Introduction to Cork Country

During the summer the green stands of cork oaks turn the flowing plains of the Alentejo into a romantic and enchanting place of sun and shadows. Wine estates, olive groves, or a white and blue house on a hill occasionally interrupts these ancient forests, which have produced cork for millennia. After the bark is harvested, the trees light up the day with their red hues, a sign of the only tree that has a renewable bark.

The Portuguese often refer to the Alentejo, with its own dialect, strong Moorish flavor, white washed towns, and unique songs, as its own nation. Most towns seem to float on hilltops above the plains, embraced by a castle. Gothic towers and red tiles rise from the venerable walls. The songs of the Alentejo, with a flavor of coriander and garlic, greet the visitor.

Extending from the southern bank of the great river Tejo to the mountains of the northern Algarve, the Alentejo is bound by the sea to the west, and Spain to the east.  Its name means "Beyond the Tejo," and it occupies more than one fifth of Portugal, with only a small fraction of the national population.

Its endless landscapes are rich in reminders of it past. From prehistory there are countless Dolmens, Mehnirs, and burial mounds. Impressive Roman relics are everywhere, from the still-standing temple at Évora to a mostly intact Roman villa at São Cucufate. While the Alentejo flourished under centuries of Roman rule, it thrived in the 400 years that the Moors held it. They left behind cultural and architectural ties, a Mosque at Mértola, and legends.

By 1249 a young Portuguese nation had incorporated the Alentejo, and strong castles arose to guard the plains. With mild winter weather, abundant soil, and a hospitable landscape, the Alentejo flourished in the Middle Ages and the Age of Discovery. Cork, wine and wheat would become the treasures that this land would offer the world.

Today, the Alentejo remains rural and natural with thousands of miles of cork forest and a variety of wildlife. Its large towns are living museums, still in their ancient walls, with a sense of timelessness that is increasingly difficult to find elsewhere. From the monumental charm of the regional capital of Évora, to the impossibly high castle tower at Beja in the south, history, tradition, and grandeur are everywhere. It is a place where amid a harmony between nature and humanity we can remember so much of what we have forgotten. These lands of cork once bore the likes of Vasco da Gama to explore the world. Today, the world is invited back to discover the Alentejo.

The Land

Occupying nearly a third of the mainland, this picturesque region is an hour's drive from Lisbon. It is bound to the north by the river Tejo, and by mountains to the south. Spain and the River Guadiana mark the border to the east, and the open Atlantic is the border to the west. The northeast of Cork Country is famed for its villages along the Castle Route: Nisa, Castelo de Vide, Marvão, Portalegre and Alter do Chão. Further south, the landscape becomes warmer and flatter. Around Évora (one of the most beautiful cities in Europe), one finds the enchanting walled towns of Monsaraz, Vila Viçosa, Estremoz, and Arraiolos (renowned for its handmade tapestries and rugs).

To the south, the rolling plains are even less inhabited, the only shade being provided by olive and cork oak trees. A trip to the museum-towns of Alvito, Beja, Serpa and Mértola will offer many memories.

To the west, the Alentejo’s coastline offers magnificent Atlantic beaches, sea cliffs, and umbrella-like pine trees.

Cork Country has distinct seasons, with a green spring rich in wild flowers. In the early summer, storks build their nests on rooftops in whitewashed villages, and the heat turns the plains to gold. The winter is mild, but the open fields become bright yellow-green, and the shepherds dress in long capes to stay warm.

What is Cork?

Cork is a unique substance and the perfect closure for wine. A totally natural product, cork is environmentally friendly, renewable, recyclable, and biodegradable. There is enough cork today in the forests of Portugal to last more than 100 years. Under a reforestation program, Portugal’s cork forests are now growing by four percent a year on average.

From Bark to Bottle

To produce cork, a cork oak (Quercus Suber, or Sobreiro in Portuguese) must be at least 25 years old. A cork oak can live as long as two centuries. To harvest the cork, the outer bark is stripped from a cork oak once every nine years. The tree is protected by an inner bark, which is always left on the tree. The harvested bark is boiled and purified. The corks are then punched.

The cork industry is environmentally friendly and truly sustainable. In Portugal, for example, the protection of cork by law has resulted in thousands of acres of protected forests. In return, these forests protect hundreds of species of birds, animals, and plants. The cork industry also sustains more than 15,000 employees in remote areas.

The wine cork is one of the most natural products in use in modern consumer society. Made entirely from the bark of the cork, wine cork is completely biodegradable.

A Tradition

Cork has been used for thousands of years. The most widespread application in cork’s history is as a wine closure, a use that began in the 17th century when Dom Perignon chose the bark of the cork oak as the perfect sealant for his champagne and it grew with the spread of mass-produced glass bottles. Portuguese cork has brought the world all of its greatest wines.
Cork’s Living Forests

According to a recent study by The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the use of natural corks by the world’s wine industry sustains a variety of rare wildlife in the cork forests of Southern Europe.

These cork oak woodlands, known as "montados" in Portugal, have been used to produce cork and graze livestock for centuries, making them a haven for wildlife. Forty-two bird species depend on them, including the endangered Spanish imperial eagle (with a global population down to 130 pairs), as well as rare species such as the black vulture and black stork. Smaller birds, such as robins, finches and song thrushes, migrate to the Iberian Peninsula’s cork forests from northern Europe, along with blackcaps from the United Kingdom. In spring and summer, the cork forests are home to a rich variety of butterflies and plants, with more than 60 plant species recorded in just one square meter. In more remote parts of these protected lands, the rare Iberian lynx can still be found.

The cork oak is the only tree that can regenerate its bark. Natural wine corks are made from the bark of these trees, which are stripped every nine years. One particular tree, known as the "Whistler Tree" because of the many singing birds attracted to it, is said to be 212 years old. It is estimated that this tree alone had produced 1,000,000 corks by the year 2000.

Suggested Tour (north to south):


Among the towers and walls of the medieval castle stand the Paços do Concelho and Hospital da Misericórdia. Main sites include: the Cathedral, São Bernardo Convent, the São Francisco Monastery (13th to 18th centuries), and the Regional, Sacred Art, and Casa de José Régio Museums.


Just south of Castelo de Vide lies impossibly high and fortified village of Marvão. Inside its impressive castle, Marvão offers wonderful views.

Castelo de Vide:

This ancient market town is known for its ruined castle and Jewish quarter (with a 15th century synagogue). Sights include the charming village fountain, the chapel of São Salvador do Mundo (Visigothic) and the twin Paços do Concelho (medieval and 18th century).


A ship of walls rising above the trees, Estremoz is a marble town, with its a 13th-century castle, Santa Isabel Chapel (18th-century), Royal Palace, São Francisco Church and Convent (Romanesque-Gothic), Paços do Concelho (14th-century), Maltesas Convent (16th-century), and the Municipal Museum.


A museum-city with its historic center classified on UNESCO’s International Heritage list. The well-preserved Roman temple, located close to the Cathedral, houses a Sacred Art Museum (Roman-Gothic). Among its many convents and churches are São Brás Chapel (Gothic-Moorish); São Francisco Church (with its Capela dos Ossos, a chapel walled with human bones) and São João Baptista Church (Gothic-Manueline); churches of Nossa Senhora da Graça ,Santo Antão and São Vicente (Mannerist). Palaces include: Archiepiscopal, Dom Manuel, and Dukes of Cadaval. Other many sites include the Praça de Giraldo with 16th-century arches, an aqueduct, the convents of Santa Clara, Santa Helena do Calvário and Lóios (currently a Pousada), the University, and an ancient Jewish quarter.

Vila Viçosa:

Built around the palace of the House of Bragança, the last Portuguese dynasty. Other places of interest: Castle, Santo Agostinho Church (13th-18th centuries), Chagas de Cristo Convent, Nossa Senhora da Esperança Monastery and Castelo Novo (Renaissance).


Fortress town, with a Roman-Arab castle. Sites include the Amoreiras Aqueduct (15th-17th centuries), town church (Manueline), churches of Nossa Senhora da Consolação (Renaissance) and Santa Clara (17th century), and Archeology Museum.


This is an inviting and beautiful medieval village, with castle walls and fortifications to challenge all enemies. Sites include the Santa Catarina Chapel, Paços do Concelho, Paços de Audiência and Porta da Vila.


This town thrived under the Romans and Moors. Sites include the Queen Leonor Museum, churches of Santo António (Visigothic) and Santa Maria, convent and castle of São Francisco (a Pousada), chapel of Santo André (Gothic-Moorish), and Misericórdia Church (Renaissance). Roman ruins are nearby at Pisões.


This breathtaking place sits on the right bank of the Guadiana River. The town’s well-preserved castle was built by the Moors. The main church, with its sculpted façade and elements from the Manueline period, was once was a mosque. Mértola is a hub of archeological activity. The Roman museum occupies the Town Hall building. The Islamic collection includes the country’s essential archive of ceramic objects (9th to 13th-centuries).

Other Cork Country Towns to Visit:

Alcáçovas, Aljustrel, Alter do Chão, Alvito (Pousada), Arraiolos (handmade rugs), Avis, Borba, Campo Maior, Crato, Santiago de Escoural (archeological park), Evoramonte, Flor da Rosa (Pousada), Monforte, Montemor-o-Novo, Moura, Nisa, Ourique, Redondo, Serpa (Pousada), Viana do Alentejo, and Vila Nova de Milfontes.

The Cuisine:

· Carne de porco à alentejana (pork with clams and coriander)

· Migas (bread crumbs)

· Coriander bread soup

· Rabbit and hare

· Soups (fish, tomato, gaspacho)

· Kid and lamb stews

· Egg sweets

· Cheeses: Nisa, Serpa and Évora

· Red and white wines: Borba, Redondo, Evora, Portalgre, Requengos, Vidigueira, Cuba and Alvito.

Cork Q&A

1. What is Cork? How Does it Work?

From bark to bottle, what is this thing called cork? Who first stuck it in a bottle, why does it protect wine so well, and how long does it last?

2. Cork and the Environment

Because of the growth of the cork industry wildlife in the cork forests has flourished. Because cork oaks take 30 years before they are productive, cork production may become threatened if world demand drops, forcing farmers to grow crops such as sunflowers, or fast-growing eucalyptus trees. The result may be impoverished soils and water shortages, causing problems for both wildlife and people. The fragile relationship between a sustainable forest and something as simple as a wine cork has a real influence on of one Europe’s last great green areas.

3. Cork and Wine: A Symbiotic Relationship

A wine cork should not be taken for granted as a simple barrier between the wine and air. Natural cork is an important partner with the glass bottle in the process of creating wine. Without a cork it would never have been possible to so easily bottle and transport wine. Since the introduction of the glass wine bottle, glass, wine, and cork have become an inseparable trio. Together they continue to allow fine wine to be enjoyed around the world. Indeed, cork and wine are grown in the same climate, share common bonds in traditions and history. And, like grapes, cork trees have different qualities, uses, and applications. There is no better way to seal a wine than with a real cork. Without real cork, no wine would taste the way it does. How many people know that vintage port or Champagne would not exist without cork? And, there would be no way for a wine to age and improve in the bottle. Without corks, the great wines of the world would simply not last for future generations to savor.

4. Origins and Legends of Cork

Corks preserved the wines of ancient Greece and Rome. But, with the fall of the Roman Empire the technology of cork was almost lost. The use of cork as a protector of wine was only rediscovered in the 17th century by the great Dom Pierre Perignon (born in 1639) as a way to preserve his creation, Champagne. Corks are a natural product and are wholly biodegradable. The Iberian Peninsula has become the largest producer of cork in the world. Today, cork is appreciated, but often misunderstood. Its origin, history and traditions merit another look.

5. Cork as Art

Natural cork not only protects wine, but also is the ultimate label for a wine. Producers and merchants take pride in the branding of their corks, which are often quite attractive objects in their own right. Many wines now have a clear capsule to display their ornately decorated corks. For Old Vintage Ports, which traditionally have no labels, corks are the only way of discovering the year in which the wine was made. Corks not only outlast the paper label; they are outlasting the wine. All types of cork-inspired arts have sprung up, including wine corkboards, trivets, cork jars, and framed corks to remember a special bottle of wine. The natural warmth and particulate of cork has given way to all types of kits to reuse the savored corks of great wines. And, at many weddings today, the popping of a Champagne cork has replaced the throwing of rice after the service.

Fact Sheet

Cork: From the Latin Quercus, or oak, cork is the bark of glandiferous cork oak grown mostly in Southwestern Europe and North Africa. The bark is harvested once every nine years in a traditional process that does no harm to the tree. Once removed, the bark simply grows back. The average lifespan of a cork oak is 150 years. New technologies and ideas have reduced the waste in cork production to a minimum and have made the processing of cork ecologically sound.

And cork is not just for wine either: it is used in flooring, insulation, fishing rods, head gaskets, sporting goods, and industry.

Cork by Numbers:

25 - The age of a cork tree when its bark can first be harvested.

350,000 tons - The amount of cork harvested annually worldwide.

17,000,000,000 - The number of wine corks sold to wineries each year.

55% - Portugal’s world share of cork production.

1680 - The year that Dom Perignon first used a cork to seal sparkling wine.

2,200,000 - The global number of metric acres of cork forests in Southern Europe and North Africa.

For more information on Portuguese Cork Country:

Miguel Carvalho
Portuguese Trade and Tourism Office
Press and Public Relations Manager
590 Fifth Avenue, 4th Floor
New York, NY 10036-4702
Tel: 646 7230213

Jayme H. Simoes Louis
Karno & Company Communications,
LLC31 Warren St.,
Concord, NH 03301
Tel: 603 2245566 x19

Need a guidebook? Call 1-800 PORTUGAL.

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