Nowadays use of oak barrels – be it French or American – is totally established in the world of wine and without barrels we would not conceive the wine as we do it. Its origin and use was initially quite far from a purpose that we know today: it was used to transport wine easily and quickly.
Thousands of years ago, when the Greek and Roman civilizations were at the peak of power and the wine was a delicacy of the gods (Dionysius and Bacchus), its storage and transport was carried out in clay amphoras. It was the most common and used vessel, even Ancient Egypt and other previous civilizations had used amphora’s to transport wine and other liquids.
One case is known, in the region of Mesopotamia, where the wooden barrels of palm wood were used to transport the wine; Herod recorded this in his writings. However, this practice was lost because the palm wood was very difficult to bend and the elaboration of the barrels was slow and expensive.
Many years before today’s glass bottles on elegant wooden wine racks, the wine was stored and transported in much more primitive vessels. For centuries, the clay amphora was the vessel in which the wine was stored and transported, but it was delicate and tended to break. When the Romans began the expansion of the Roman Empire, making long journeys in which they were loaded not only with weapons and food, but also with the wine amphoras, they found that it was increasingly difficult for them to transport it.
When the Roman Empire conquered Gaul, the Romans discovered that the Gauls used oak barrels to store beer. They learned how to make them by humidifying and heating the boards to give them the desired shape, following the same process used to make their boats.
The Romans saw in these barrels an opportunity to transport their wine quickly and safely. The most common wood used to make barrels was oak, popular for its many characteristics: it was easy to bend, one of the most abundant woods in the forests of Europe and, finally, it was a waterproof wood so the wine that wasn’t filtered remained intact in its interior.
After this discovery, the Romans abandoned the amphora’s and began to use the barrels because they did not break during transport and it was not necessary to carry them because their circular shape allowed them to roll on the ground. In less than 200 years the famous clay vessel gave way to oak barrels, unknowingly giving an unexpected twist to the properties of the wine. They also discovered that the wine improved after its contact with the wood and began to store it in barrels for this purpose, to give it that special touch, although transport was still an important part of its use.
Despite many new methods, oak barrel remains the star method for wine aging, be it French or American, new or old. His discovery was, has been and is one of the great milestones of history, without which, the wine that we drink today would not be the same.