For the next few weeks let’s explore how the development of the wooden barrel has affected wine and trade.
From 300 B.C to 200 A.D wine and other liquids were carried in the earthenware “amphorae”. Because they were easy to make — and easily disposable — they were ideally suited to a burgeoning trade. The French city of Toulouse is constructed over a mound of clay chards dating from this period.
So where and when did wooden barrels come into use? We could point to the eastern Persian Empires’ use of barrel-like containers, shaped from hollowed-out palm trees, to transport wine. Common wisdom, however, credits the Celts (Gauls) with development of the wooden barrel. While in Northern Italy, Roman historian Strabo observed them storing wine in large barrels. Pliny the Elder made perhaps the first reference of the influence of wood on wine, when he noted that barrels constructed from yew trees made wine poisonous. Amphorae, however, remained the preferred method of transporting wine.
Why the barrel came into favor began with the Roman conquest of what is now France, Switzerland and Belgium. These actions required moving away from major rivers with their comparative ease of bulk transport. Amphorae are made from clay and are incredibly heavy. Barrels, on the other hand, are crafted from wood which is lighter and, because of their design, can be rolled along by a single man. When you carry all the supplies necessary for a campaign Into an unknown interior, the weight and design advantage was readily apparent to the Roman Legions. Archaeological remains of Roman barrels are not common, since wood decays over time. But fragments have been uncovered as far north as Hadrian’s Wall in England.
Next week we will continue this series on wood and wine.
If you want to try unique wines, drive down to Cape Vesey and taste the wines of Del-Gatto Estates Winery. All their wines are crafted from 100% estate-grown fruit, from varietals you might not recognize. The results, nevertheless, are eye-opening and lip-smacking good.
This family operated winery produces a selection of wines to accommodate all palates. They range from a luscious off-dry Vidal (retailing at $16.00) to a full-bodied red made from the Leon Millot grape ($20.00).
Pat Del-Gatto, winemaker and defacto jack-of-all-trades, is not averse to harnessing the energies of his family throughout the year, in the interest of this gem of a vineyard. These wines are made in small lots and are only available at the vineyard located on 3609 County Rd. 8, in Cape Vesey.
Wines of the County is featured every week in The Times and on the East & Main Bistro website.