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Invention of oak barrels emphasizes the old cliché “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Oak barrels used in modern winemaking
Oak barrels used in modern winemaking

In early wine history, armies and merchants used amphorae or clay jugs to store and transport wine over long distances. Over 2000 years ago, as the Roman Empire expanded, they took with them weapons, food and wine. Wine was considered safer than water; it provided energy to the malnourished troops, and of course a buzz. But as the Romans pushed farther North, away from the Mediterranean, transporting wine in clay jugs posed great difficulties. 

It was not until the Romans encountered the Gauls (a group of Celtic people) that they discovered oak barrels. Oak was available in plenty in the forests of Continental Europe. And the Gauls, at the time, made and used oak barrels to transport their favorite foods and drinks. These barrels were stronger yet lighter than clay, and were watertight; they could be turned on their side, rolled and stacked during transport. Voila! 

The adoption of oak barrels by the Roman army was swift. Soon the wine merchants started using them giving rise to the ‘craft of cooperage’. By the third century AD oak barrels had replaced amphorae completely.

As the centuries progressed, especially after the second World War when many wine producers turned to estate bottling rather than shipping wines, winemakers realized that besides merely acting as an excellent vessel for storage and transport, oak barrels affected the wine’s color, flavor, tannin profile and texture, imparting new, pleasant qualities to the wine. 

Today, oak barrels are considered to be the gold standard of modern winemaking around the globe. Winemakers use them during the fermentation or maturation/ageing process, or both, to shape the final character of the wine.

But using oak barrels in winemaking is not as simple as it might seem. Oak barrels can be large or small, new or old; even the types of oak vary - French, American or Hungarian/ Eastern European. All of these factors add different levels of complexity and influence the final taste of wine in a unique way. Hence, winemakers need to make a variety of decisions when it comes to using oak.

Some of the world’s greatest and most expensive wines have been “seasoned” from the time spent in oak.
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