A brief history of the wine barrel

A brief history of the wine barrel

The way of storing wine is certainly as determining for its quality and its future as the way of making it. Depending for a long time on the means and materials available, the wine container contributes to the taste development and style of the wine it contains, having gradually added to its role as container that of an instrument involved in the winemaking process.

This is the story of the wine barrel.

Although Herod 73-4 B.C. BC) the "king of Judea" spoken of in the New Testament already mentions barrels made of palm wood used by the Assyrians to transport wines from Armenia to Babylon and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), the use of the barrel would have first spread outside the Mediterranean basin. However, the palm wood which the Mesopotamians used was not supple or cheap, and the buckets were difficult to make. As a result, the buckets did not become widespread compared to amphorae. 

 The first wines were made in earthen jars and stored in skins, as described in the Old Testament. Commonly used were small goatskins, which is roughly equivalent to one barrels worth today. Larger quantities of wine were stored in ox-skins, roughly a cask. This practice was common throughout the Middle East, as well as Greece and the Roman Empire. However, skins are made from organic matter, and as a result decompose over time. For storing larger quantities of wine or transporting wine long distances, they were inefficient and prone to rotting.

An alternative method of storage arose from the home of the wine grape itself: Georgia qvevri, along with pottery, around 6000BC. Qvevri are large, rounded clay pots coated with beeswax to slow oxidation and stored in the ground to maintain a stable temperature, as well as to prevent cracking due to CO2 build-up during fermentation. However, qvevri are too round and too fragile to travel easily.

A sturdier vessel was invented in the Bronze Age: the amphora. They were actually invented by the Egyptians and appear in Egyptian paintings showing winemaking. The technology then quickly spread through the Mediterranean. Amphorae were tall and narrow, which was useful for four reasons: The slim neck means that only a small surface area of wine is exposed to air. This limits the amount of oxidation of the wine that is possible, preserving the wine for longer. Additionally, the insides were often lined with wax and the top sealed with a clay stopper of some kind, making the container airtight. Amphorae can be packed tightly into ships by burying the amphorae in sand or strung up by the handles on ship The pointed end, the equivalent of a modern-day wine bottle’s ‘punt’ allows sediment to fall out of the wine and collect at the bottom, the pointed end also meant that the amphorae could be buried deeper into the cool ground for long-term storage.

However, amphorae are still fragile, given that they are made of clay, and would often break when dropped. This led to guaranteed losses in every large wine shipment. Additionally, amphorae were often single-use, as often opening the amphorae would cause the container to shatter.

In the monumental encyclopedia book entitled Natural History, the Roman naturalist writer Pline the Elder (23-79) attributes the invention of the barrel to the Rhetes, a people related to the Etruscans established in the high valleys in the heart of the Alps,
and reports that around the Alps we preserve [the wine] using wooden containers made of fir and spruce boards and we surround them with circles. They also keep their food reserves of grains, dried meat flour and cheeses there, protected from humidity and predators.

It was in a pit in the oppidum of Manching in Germania at the confluence of the Paar River and the Danube that the oldest barrel was found.

It wasn’t until the Roman empire had vastly expanded to reach Gaul (France), wood barrels sourced from Celtic tribes began to be utilised as a means of transporting wine.

The place that the barrel will take in history is strongly dependent on the progressive organization of trade in which wine quickly becomes the main commodity and currency of exchange.

The French progressively became the world experts in barrel-making at the time.  The word ‘cooper’, which is still used today to refer to artisan barrel-makers, originates from barrel makers in the Cisalpine region of Roman France.

By 300AD, usage of the wooden barrel had become widespread, as the barrels were easily rolled by ancient Roman soldiers, and there were hundreds of cooper’s guilds throughout Europe. The barrels were wildly popular both as the shape encouraged easier transportation compared to the pointed amphorae, and also because the barrel could be re-used compared to the shatter-prone pottery alternative. Oak (or quercus) quickly became the wood of choice for the new barrels, as it is both light and a cheap, abundant European wood with a tight grain, making for a waterproof barrel, easily shaped by coopers and sturdy enough to hold many litres of wine. The final nail in the coffin of the ubiquitous amphorae came when humans noticed the oak itself was not only useful as transportation, but also actively improved the taste of the wine. Since then, barrels are used less for transportation but widely used to mature wines to improve flavour.

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