Wine Storage - Barrels

It's not entirely clear when and where barrels actually originated, although their use became widespread under the Romans. Some evidence regarding the earliest wooden barrels comes from writings, some from illustrations, and some from archeological finds. A big problem is that pottery lasts longer than wood over the centuries, so we have far more examples of ancient pottery-making than of ancient barrel-making. Nonetheless, the first references by early Greek and Roman writers credited the development of barrels to the Celts, or Gauls.

The earliest known coopers tools date only from 100 B.C. but the art of barrel making is assumed to be much older. The writer Strabo, who died around 23 AD, wrote that the Gauls bought wine from northern Italy and then stored it in wooden containers that could be a large as a house. This observation has actually been supported by the discovery of remnants of wooden containers having capacities of over 1000 liters. Pliny the Elder, who died in 79 AD, also wrote that the Gauls stored their wine in wooden containers that were held together with metal hoops. In addition, he mentioned that storing wine in barrels made of yew made it poisonous, so there was obviously an awareness of the properties of different woods. Pliny thought that the barrel was developed by Gallic tribes in the Alps and noted that it was used in colder countries, while elsewhere wine was stored in earthenware vases.

Even before meeting the Romans, the Gauls had long been fond of wine. Either the Phoenicians or Greeks established the port of Massalia, or present-day Marseilles, and traded wine with the local inhabitants. By 400 BC the wine trade was well-established and widespread. Remnants of their early amphorae have been found in many places in the Languedoc and southern France. Thus, although some Roman writers imply that the Gauls did not know wine until it was introduced by the Romans themselves, that would have been in error. At any rate, the Romans were also selling wine to the Gauls at least a century before Caesar arrived to conquer, and they were sending it by amphorae in the same way the Greeks had. This early trade was huge; the town of Toulouse is built on tens of thousands of amphora shards that date from the second to first century BC.

On the other hand, the Romans also knew something of wooden casks even prior to the conquest of Gaul. Cato the Elder, who died in 149 BC, referred to wooden wine casks when instructing how his slaves were to be given wine for the winter. writing: “Put in a wooden cask ten parts of must and two parts of very pungent vinegar, and add two parts of boiled wine and fifty of sweet water. With a paddle mix all these thrice per day for five days in succession. Add one forty-eighth of seawater drawn some time earlier. Place the lid on the cask and let it ferment for ten days. This wine will last until the solstice. If any remains after that time, it will make very sharp excellent vinegar.“

Julius Caesar, who showed up in Gaul before either Pliny or Strabo, encountered barrels because the Gauls used them as primitive bombs to fight him. In 51 B.C., while he besieged the Gauls at Uxellodenum, the Gauls filled wooden barrels with pitch, grease, and twigs, lit them on fire, and rolled them to the Romans. We do need to be careful with translation at this point. The containers were called "cupae", from which we derive the word "cooper". As of 70 A.D. under the Emperor Tiberius, the cupa became fairly well-known but the Latin name “dolium” was also used because the Romans had called their large earthenware vases “dolia”. There is some argument that dolia only referred to earthenware and cupae referred to wooden containers, but eventually, the Gaul barrels became known as “tonneau”, which is derived from the Latin "dolium", and which referred to a round container.

In any event, the first storage barrels were not made for wine. More likely they were made for beer, because the Gauls do not seem to have actually produced wine until the Romans established a presence. Posidonius, in the first century B.C., had written about the habits of the Gauls. He believed that climate determined whether one would be a beer or a wine drinker and also that it influenced one's character. He stated that since the excessive cold ruined the climate of the air, the land of the Gauls produced neither wine nor oil. He too noted the trade in wine, observing that the southern Gauls especially had acquired a fondness for wine. Gauls being who they were however, they drank the wine unmixed with water, and consequently if they did not fall into a stupor, they would start to fight among themselves.

Diodorus Siculus, following Posidonius but still writing in the first century BC, writes that the Gauls knew nothing of wine or oil produced from trees, and as a substitute for wine used a foul smelling juice made from barley left to rot in water, while for oil they used rancid pig fat with a disgusting smell and flavor. He noted that this provided an opportunity for trade however, writing that ”The Italian merchants exploit the Gallic passion for wine. On the boats which follow the waterways or by wagons which roll across the plain, they transport wine, from which they make fantastic profits, going as far as trading one amphora for one slave, in such manner that the buyer brings his servant to pay for the drink.”

Pliny, writing a bit later, agreed with the sentiment, noting that the Gauls made an alcoholic drink from cereal because their climate did not allow them to make wine. His writings on climate are interesting. He felt that the cold climate also made the Gauls and Germans tall, light-skinned, slow-witted and savage. Conversely, the climate of the southern regions made those people small, dark, and timid, although wily and intelligent. The people who were centrally located in more temperate regions were just right in every respect and consequently were natural rulers of the others. The people from temperate regions were also wine drinkers. Coincidentally, they also happened to be the Romans.

Once Caesar had established the Roman presence in Gaul, the land would not be without wine for long. During the reign of Caesar Augustus, the Allobroges, who controlled traffic in the Rhone valley, found a grape that could survive the frost in the area. This discovery pushed the limit of grape growing hundreds of miles north, away from the southern Mediterranean regions where it had been long established. Simultaneously in Aquitaine, the "Biturica" grape was found and became established in the region around Bordeaux, which had become a shipping port for goods to and from the British Isles. With these grapes, wine could be produced in Gaul. Also, as it turned out, in vast quantities.

But how would they ship or store this wine? Gaul turned out to be such an ideal place to make wine, and production ramped up so rapidly, that Gallic wine quickly began cutting into the profits of the Italian winemakers. To protect the Roman producers, in 92 A.D., the emperor Domitien decided to destroy the vineyards in Gaul. The misguided predilection for artificially restricting production to inflate wine prices has clearly been part of the wine trade since its very earliest days. It was understood for exactly what it was too - Cicero recorded that the Gauls were not allowed to plant olive trees or grape vines so that the Roman merchants could enjoy a monopoly on trade in these items. Of course, it is one thing to issue a decree but quite another to enforce it, so wine making was not entirely discontinued in Gaul, whether by the Gauls themselves or by Roman settlers. More importantly, the Gauls were woodworkers, not potters. For the first time, the traditional and ancient clay pot had a serious rival as a container for wine storage and transport.

By this point the Romans were also realizing that the wooden barrel was better than clay amphorae for transporting wine or other liquids. Caesar had taken the Roman legions into areas that were not always near waterways, so they had to build roads and carry supplies over rough terrain. Although insofar as possible, they used rivers for transport, they still needed a way to carry wine and oil to the soldiers through forests and mountains. Wood barrels are both lighter and stronger than clay. Moreover, because they are bowed, when put on their sides they can be rolled by one man with little energy - the surface that is touching the ground is very small relative to the size of the container so there is far less friction than there would be if the barrel were straight-sided. The bowed shape also makes it easy to roll them up and down ramps if the ramps have slightly raised sides or rails - the barrel will stay centered and will not roll to one side or another, which could result in damage and injury. In terms of package design then, barrels provided better efficiency for transport and storage. Finally, there were plenty of trees in Gaul from which to obtain the requisite wood. Although it took longer to make a barrel than to make a clay pot, it could be made larger, it was stronger, and it had a longer life expectancy.

The consequences were inevitable. By the first century AD, barrels were in use across the Roman Empire. Caesar died in 59 BC. Trajan's Column, begun in approximately 106 AD, less than fifty years after Caesar's death, bears carvings of Roman boats loaded with barrels. The column was built to commemorate Trajan's victory in Dacia, or what would now be part of Romania and Hungary, far from Gaul. Moreover, Trajan was the successor to Domitien and had not rescinded the prohibition on wine or olives from Gaul, so the barrels depicted bore Roman goods.

By the second century barrels were well-established. In the German town of Trier on the Mosel, there is a famous carving of a Roman boat loaded with barrels that dates to about 220 A.D., known as the Neumagen Wine Boat. It commemorates a local Roman wine merchant. There are other stone carvings in France that depict boats hauling wine and other goods under the Roman occupation. As one moves farther away from southern Gaul, remnants of amphorae are decreasingly found, suggesting that their use did not last much beyond the earliest Roman incursions by Caesar.

From Bordeaux, the Romans shipped barrels to England where remnants of barrels have been found made from very different types of wood, including larch and fir that likely came from Germany and/or France. During more recent excavations at Canary Warf in England, remnants of Roman barrels made from fir and other woods were uncovered. At Hadrian's Wall in England, there are remnants of barrels and Roman writings about barrels of wine, fish, oil, and other goods. Hadrian died around 138 AD and of course some of these things could have appeared after his death, but it is apparent that the barrel had become the vessel for transporting precious metals, powders, ochre, sulfur, olives, jam, salted fish, mustard, oil, vinegar, honey, pickled foods and other commodities. As conquerors, Romans retained mastery of the vineyards in Gaul, though they were supposed to have been uprooted. When the Emperor Probus finally lifted Domitien's restrictions in 276 AD, wine production in the Empire and shipments to England increased dramatically.

The use of pottery was not entirely abandoned however. Shipwrecks have been found containing many amphorae that have been dated between 100 and 200 A.D. Roman amphorae have also been found in Britain, which would place them after the arrival of the Romans. But if barrels were ultimately better containers, why did pottery use continue for so long? In part the answer is quite simply because it was good enough. Hard-nosed and unsentimental, the Romans are the last people who would have kept to their pottery merely for emotional reasons. While pottery may not have been a superior container once metalworking and woodworking had reached the levels of sophistication they reached under the Gauls, there was no real economic pressure to find an alternative to clay. It is cheap, a skilled potter could turn out many consistent pots in one day, and logistical systems had long been established to deal with pottery containers. Rather than let the perfect become the enemy of the sufficient, the ancients probably saw no real benefit in re-thinking their storage and transportation materials. Today there are many examples of businesses that use little new technology but operate quite successfully alongside businesses that are far more up to date. It is never technology itself that drives change, it is the application of technology to produce an economic advantage that drives change. So pottery vessels remained in use for some time after barrels had become increasingly common.

Still, more than anything, the Romans were practical people. The advantages of barrels were so great that the Romans could not resist the technology. By the waning of the Roman Empire, barrels had become ubiquitous and they remain in use today. The only real material rival that they have seen in over 2000 years is the recent development of stainless steel. Interestingly, it is difficult to find much scholarship regarding the history of barrel making, which is curious, given that barrels have been so important to world trade for so long.