Put A Cork In It

If you're reading this with the preconception that the French are wine fanatics and fiercely proud of it, you're right.

But it took me two weeks in Perpignan, three tastings, and several conversations with locals to realize just how much they care about their wine.

My colleagues and I spent the last week digging up potential story ideas for our video and feature text assignments during our month-long stay in the city. After several failed attempts at finding a topic that would satisfy both my need for vivid visuals and captivating words, I stumbled upon one that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Cork (yes, the one used in wine bottles) is one of the staple products of the region. The processing period takes place throughout the year, but harvesting starts in July. Just like that, my luck had changed.

After doing a little bit more research (and of course, with the aid of our Wonder Woman hostess, Florence Delseny-Sobra), I learned that the French are finding themselves in controversy over the cork business. Demand for the natural, traditional, 100 percent cork stopper is dropping elsewhere in the world in favor of cheaper, more convenient synthetic stoppers or screw caps.

To the French, this is a travesty. Delseny-Sobra mentioned that the sound of a cork popping open is "all part of the magic" of drinking wine. There are museums and associations dedicated to the traditional way of producing cork, and many vendors in the area, like Alexandre Rieu of Albera-Nayandei, will not sell their wines with any other stopper.

"The French are very worried about losing their traditions," Rieu said. "They are not open-minded about other methods. They want to be the best in the world."

I have a meeting on July 8 with Antoine Tixadore who manages and owns Travet Liège, a local cork processing plant. I'm both anxious and excited to hear what he has to say about the business he seems to be so intimately intertwined with. He seems quite enthused to have the opportunity to tell his side of the story.

One study I've come across states people's perception of taste does not change between the corked, synthetically corked, or screw-capped wine, something that the French seem to be starkly adamant about.

As a Canadian wine-drinker, I'm content with sampling the best that the South of France has to offer. So far, I can't tell the difference between a natural corked rosé from a screw-capped Chardonnay. Here's hoping that somewhere along the interview process, these wine connoisseurs and cork buffs will provide some professional insight in how to train my palette to notice the slightest "gout de bouchon."

Cheers, or should I say, "Vive la France!"

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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.