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Porto’s Unexpected Cork Country

When we arrived in Porto in December 2016, one of the first things I did was try a port wine tasting near the banks of the Douro. Three ports – white, pink and rubio – were lined up on a leatherlike cork cloth. Each vintage was excellent. Curious about the connections within that tableau of cork and port, we ventured to the countryside the next day.

South of the city lay the Douro Valley and the headquarters of the world’s largest cork producer, Amorim Cork. There in Santa Maria de Lamas I learned the history of cork’s connection with port wine, the evolution of wine bottling, and a fascinating precursor to Fair Trade.

Two men with sharp tools peel bark from a cork tree in Portugal.
The harvest of cork in its native forest involves peeling the tree’s bark from the lower trunk and branches. The trees survive harvests every 8 to 10 years. Credit: Rodrigo Cabrita

I managed to get lost once off the highway and had to ask directions. At a sunlight-filled café, my poor Portuguese was comical. By the time we reached Santa Maria de Lamas, friendly people had offered directions in three languages (Portuguese, French from a truck driver, and English from a policeman on foot) plus a pictograph drawn by a woman in the café. Passing signs for other cork manufacturers on Rua dos Corticeiros (roughly translated as Corkmaker Street), we finally found the Amorim entrance. Clearly this area had a niche. But why here, when Portugal’s main cork forest region lay further south?

Read my feature for Culinary Backstreets .

See also my Washington Post article for further adventures with food and wine in Portugal.

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