Twisting Open The Secrets Of Portugal's Cork Empire
In the hands of the same family since 1870, the world's largest producer of corks almost disappeared in the early 2000s. Today, this gem of Portuguese industry has not only reconquered its historic market, but has made cork the darling of many other sectors.
Craftsman slicing a piece of cork.
PORTO DE SANTA MARIA DA FEIRA — In the courtyard, mountains of bark await their turn before moving onto the conveyor belts. Scanned from every angle, they are distributed according to the thickness of their cork layer, before an artificial intelligence system scans them with cameras and tells robots where to drill, turning the bark into small cylinders. Nearby, a dozen human operators perform the same work by hand and eye. "Their expertise is unique, and we reserve it for our best customers," explains Carlos de Jesus, marketing director for cork company Amorim.
Once cut into perfect-looking corks, they undergo a final test. Conceiçao Loja, bending over bags ready for shipment, spots some with micro-defects. "Does it change the quality of the wine? No. But if you're a prestigious château, you expect everything to be perfect," proudly says the technician with 37 years' experience under her belt.
It's impossible to miss the factories along the 25 kilometers that separate Porto, Portugal from Santa Maria da Feira, Amorim's stronghold. Similar to the one we surveyed on this March morning, they're everywhere, churning out over 6 billion corks a year, which is half of the world's entire production. But wine and champagne houses, the company's long-standing customers, are not the only ones to benefit: from shoe soles to surfboards, insulation panels to rocket noses, stadium floors to ship decks, Amorim cork is everywhere.PORTO DE SANTA MARIA DA FEIRA