Controversy Fermenting?

When I first began research on my story about the French cork production and marketing process, I was under the assumption that talking to wine makers, cork producers, and wine drinkers would steer me right in the middle of brewing controversy.

Or would it be fermenting?

Thus far, I've spoken to four different individuals involved somewhere along the lines of French cork practices, and have come up with four unique voices to my story.

My French and English vocabularies have grown exponentially this week, thanks to visits with oenologists concerning agglomerated corks to prevent the "goût de bouchon."

Exactly, or, "tout à fait."

Antoine Tixador, president of Travet Liège, a cork production company in Rivesaltes, says that natural cork will always be what the French consider the best choice for wine bottle closures. Agglomerated corks are a close second, and synthetic and screw caps fall somewhere behind those.

Jean-Marie Aracil of the French Cork Federation agrees with Tixador, but adds that certain younger wines opt to use screw-caps because they don't need to be kept as long. The French wine market has learned to adapt to this demand, even though it isn't steeped in tradition.

Today, after our wine tasting (I've lost count at this point how many we've had), my conversation with Pierrick Harang of PH Wine took a completely different turn, as finally my search for an opposing view became fruitful. Harang uses primarily screw-cap tops. He spoke passionately about how he wasn't worried about using unconventional (to the French at least) methods.

"I know my wine tastes good because it is good wine," Harang says. "I won't have something like cork taint convince my clients otherwise."

It seems that French traditions are giving way to change, albeit slight. What's more surprising is fewer people than I would have thought seem to be bothered by it.

Tradition still thrives, however, in the forests at the base of the Pyrénées, where Francisco and his team of Spanish cork harvesters still use a simple axe to strip the cork bark off the trees.

Standing in the middle of a well-kept, tranquil forest near Le Boulou, I watch the old man hack away at the trunk with a certain grace and artistry. He never misses his marks, and although he puts a lot of strength behind his methodic blows, he removes the outer layer of the tree delicately and cleanly.

The people of this area have been doing this for centuries. Amidst all of the cork factories and high-tech wineries of the day, it was both refreshing and humbling to see the rawest form of one of the country's greatest prides.

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About the Program

Fifteen college students came from North America to Perpignan, France, in June 2011 to produce these videos and stories. To find out more, read a welcome letter from program director Rachele Kanigel, meet the program faculty and explore the 2010 website.