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The next time you open a bottle of wine, don't just sniff the cork. Ponder it for a moment. That cork you just pulled out may be helping to save a forest. The trend toward using artificial stoppers and screw-tops seems to be over, and as Jerome Socolovsky reports, the renaissance of cork is helping to save Portugal's forests.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: It's daybreak in the Alentejo Forest in central Portugal. The spring rains have subsided, and the birds greet the morning sun. Many of the trees have a plump layer of bark.

Antonio Dominguez(ph) uses a sharp axe on a tree that's around 100 years old. First, he makes incisions in the bark, then he pries off a rectangular piece and lets it fall to the ground. Dominguez has been stripping cork bark for 17 years. It's heavy work, but he describes it as an art.

Mr. ANTONIO DOMINGUEZ (Forest Worker, Portugal): (Portuguese spoken)

Ms. JOANNA MESQUITA(ph): (Translator, Amorim): He said it's more than strength. You need to have somebody that is gifted, in a way, to feel - look at the tree and feel, and it's something that you don't get in one year or two years. You need to be trained.

SOCOLOVSKY: The translator is Joanna Mesquita. She works for Amorim, the world's largest cork producer. These oaks have to be 25 years old before they can produce cork, and even then, each tree is harvested just once every nine years. Mesquita says that's why Dominguez is so careful.

Ms. MESQUITA: The most important thing is not to work faster. The most important thing is not to damage the tree.

SOCOLOVSKY: Portugal produces more than half of the world's cork. For decades, the industry encouraged rural landowners to maintain the cork forests. It's a rich habitat for wildlife and endangered species like the Iberian lynx and the imperial eagle. But a few years ago, wine bottlers started switching to plastic stoppers and aluminum screw-tops. They were cheaper and resistant to cork taint, a moldy growth that can spoil a bottle of wine.

(Soundbite of factory machines)

SOCOLOVSKY: Amorim buys bark from harvesters and brings it to this factory in the town of Coruche, about an hour's drive from Lisbon. The bark is boiled in large, stainless-steel tanks, where it swells into thick planks. Then it's sliced and sorted.

Joanna Mesquita says the synthetic alternatives were a blessing in disguise for natural cork producers.

Ms. MESQUITA: Because if it wasn't for that, probably this industry wouldn't wake up as quickly as it did.

SOCOLOVSKY: Amorim has invested more than 40 million Euros in new technologies to keep the cork free from compounds that cause taint. A year ago, the company opened this new automated factory that makes up to four-and-a-half million corks a day. These machines granulate and form the surplus cork into cheaper stoppers. Mesquita says these are for mass-produced wines that are going to be consumed relatively soon after bottling.

Ms. MESQUITA: Some years ago, plastic appeared as being the cheapest solution for this wine. Nowadays, there is no reason for somebody to use a plastic cork.

SOCOLOVSKY: She says winemakers are switching back to natural cork, and Amorim sales have started rising again in recent years. Although producers of artificial stoppers argue that their products are easier to use and better at preventing spoiled wine, there is an allure about natural cork. Wine connoisseurs would no doubt be outraged to open a Dom Perignon or a Chateau la Fete and find plastic in the bottleneck, and cork producers hope the sustainability argument will give them an edge with environmentally aware consumers. For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Coruche, Portugal.

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