When we think of large quantities of wine, we don’t think so much of several bottles, or a metal vat, we think of a big oak barrel. Those rotund vesselsare a comforting sight and we’ve fetishized them to the degree that retired barrels are often turned into bookcases, seats and tables (where we sit and…drink wine).

Why, though, do we age wine in oak barrels?

For many centuries, wine was stored and transported in clay jugs, or amphorae, as the wine-loving Romans called them. There’s only one thing that Romans loved more than drinking wine – building empires.

Empire building needs lots of travel and so of course that wine had to go with them. At that time, fermented drinks were safer than water, provided soldiers with calories and, of course, was just as much fun as it is now.

The clay amphora was a convenient way to transport wine – it could be made airtight, made to different sizes and didn’t weigh too much. The Mesopotamians used palm wood barrels, but palm wood is hard to bend, so this was unusual.

As the Roman Empire spread northwards, away from the Mediterranean, moving clay amphorae became costlier and more difficult. Longer distances = more breakages, for a start. The Romans knew about palm wood barrels, but found them tricky and expensive to make.

The Gauls came to the rescue

When the Romans reached modern-day France, they found the Gaulsusing oak barrels to store and transport beer, and realised they’d found the solution.

Oak is softer than palm wood and so is easier to bend, meaning it also needed minimal toasting, making the construction of a barrel swifter and cheaper. In addition to this advantage, oak’s tighter grain made it waterproof. As if this wasn’t enough, Europe was practically covered in oak trees at that time.

They were sold – within two centuries, the amphora had been discarded and replaced by the barrel.

Added benefits

The Romans, and everyone else who drank their wine, soon noticed that wines stored in oak barrels had better tastes than those stored in other containers. Prolonged contact with the wood made wines taste and feel smoother and the fact that oak is hardly toasted meant that other flavorscould come through into the wine – cloves, vanilla, caramel, allspice and so on.

The longer the wine was stored, the more these qualities came through, and that is how aging wine in oak barrels started.