Montados - The Cork forests of the Alentejo
Lets put this in context ....economically one third of all wine corks come from Portugal. To produce these the country has approx 700,000 hectares of cork forest or "Montados" whose annual production is around 180,000 tonnes.
The vast majority of the Montados is found in the Alentejo, an area that is mostly flat or has gently undulating hills. The Alentejo itself makes up fully a third of Portugal's landmass. Population in the area is scarce and mostly agriculturally based.
However, perhaps we should also look at the environmental issues concerning the Alentejo. It takes 25 years before a cork tree is old enough to harvest. Then you can only harvest once every 9 years and the 1st two harvests do not produce good quality cork. The cork from these first harvests tend to be used for floor tiles or cork boards and not for wine! So it's actually a minimum of 43 years before a tree starts to produce cork of a quality that is good enough for wine. 43 years!
As the Portuguese say, "The vines were planted by me, the olive trees by my parents, but the cork, that comes from my ancestors".
The next important point to realise is that taking cork from the trees is a manual job. There have been attempts at mechanisation but it just doesn't work. The trees themselves can be hard to access, (and this is especially so in the hillier Lower Alentejo where the Quinta is situated). Moreover, cutting the cork is a skilled job as one has to be sure not to cut the phloem layer below the cork that actually sustains the tree - cut too deep and you may kill the tree.
So the trees grow undisturbed for 9 years, every tree marked with the year when they will be ready to harvest, (eg the number 3 on a tree means it will be harvested in 2013), and the ground between them supports a varied fauna and flora, the same as it has done since time immemorial. When the harvesting year arrives, instead of large industrial machines with a single operator, teams of itinerant labour strips the bark, one piece at a time, providing work that keeps the countryside alive from another aspect as well. Although there are some large farms, large scale production is still uncommon as land ownership in the Alentejo is in the Napoleonic tradition with many families still retaining an interest in the harvest.
It is this combination of long time scale and imperviousness to industrialisation which makes the Montados such a vital environmental niche. Put simply, they are an economic mainstay of this deprived and under-populated area of south west Europe, producing a crop that is organic and eco-friendly while at the same time providing a diverse habitat that sustains a rich and otherwise threatened wildlife.
So how does all this all fit in with the Quinta? Well, apart from doing our bit by having an extensive wine list of course, one of the Quinta's main aims is to support this countryside by offering a base for outside visitors to get to know the area. This is not only "educational" but it also widens the local economic base by providing employment, both prime and secondary, and in so doing it infuses the local economy with a much needed source of foreign exchange.
So if you want your holiday to be a cut above the rest and not only fun and value for money, (with good food, wine and company, and in a region of outstanding natural beauty), but also want to know that you're doing some good in the world at the same time .... well, the Quinta's for you!