History of the barrel: winemaking, transport and ageing

The first evidence of the use of barrels is found in the francophone region of the Gaul, where they were used in the production of beer. When those lands were conquered by the Roman Empire, the barrels were discovered as a resistant, hardly permeable, easy-handling recipient, with a big storage capacity, which would later replace the amphora and earthenware jars used until then. From the discovery of the barrels, casks and wooden vats became used by the Romans in the transport of wine produced in Greece, the Gaul and Hispania. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the decline of winemaking and wine’s trade and transport started.

barrel wines

In the next centuries, the consumption and elaboration of wine was attributed to monks and to religious communities, who were responsible of the evolution of the sacred drink.

Wood such as pine, beech, cherry tree, chestnut, ash tree, acacia and fir tree was used in the elaboration of barrels. Later on, they were replaced by the oak, which was very abundant in Europe and at the same time very resistant. In addition, it modified the olphactive and gustative characteristic of wine positively.

In the 16th century, the use of barrels was consolidated thanks to the maritime trade with the New World. Due to the requirements of this kind of transport, the size of barrels was modified and the 250 litre barrels used in the land transport were replaced by the 500 and 600 litre barrels, which are still used in the production of Sherries, Madeira and Porto wines.

In the long-distance trips to the European colonies, the wines suffered modifications. Some turned sour, but other improved. This is how Madeira wines, known as return wines, became well-known, since the barrels returned in the ships because they had not been sold in the New World, had much more pleasant organoleptic characteristics for the people in the island.

The use of barrels changed when glass bottles were invented and with the progress of chemistry. The barrels, which were until then a transport recipient, became ageing deposits. Indeed, if the wine is left for some time in the barrel and is then bottled, a much more pleasurable palate barrel wine is obtained and the wine’s life is prolonged.

In Spain, it is not until the 19th century that the wineries Marqués de Murrieta and Marqués de Riscal introduced the use of barrels in the wine’s ageing, obtaining considerable improvements in the final wine produced. Due to the cost of the barrels, it was not until the 20th century that the use of these became a common practice in Spanish winemaking.

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