Sometimes, starting with the obvious is best: Since the inception of wine, there have always been vessels for holding it.
Throughout much of the history of wine, it has been aged, transported and stored in amphorae or clay jugs. Albeit rarely, wine can still be aged in amphorae, it is also occasionally produced in miscellaneous vessels that are much like concrete tanks or in demijohns, which are large glass jugs. Most commonly, however, oak barrels are used for holding modern wine, as are glass bottles and tanks made from stainless steel.
Today, we will consider the oak barrel history
Oak barrel history is sketchy, given that many of the potential artifacts have been lost to wood rot.
The oak barrel history that is generally accepted starts with the Celts, or the Northern Europeans who lived around the Alps or what is current France and Germany. They had timber in abundance in their natural environment (oak happens to be ideal for barrel-making purposes). The economy created an increased demand for transportation and storage vessels. From this and with a bit of ingenuity, the wooden barrel was created around 300 BC. This was a technology that did not last … by chance, the clever woodworker would soon be overtaken by the Roman Empire. While this did not bode well for the Celts, it did good in terms of spreading barrel-making.
Oak barrels continued to be used for centuries and yet, at some point in the oak barrel history, winemakers begin to take notice and then leverage, the effects that the barrel aging process had on their wines.
This is an understanding that really took off in the 19th century. This was truly an age of science. Fermentation and spoilage were just two of the many scientific issues that this culture explored and much of this research involved the direct study of wine. Generally, however, the practice of scientific thinking trickled down to the average individual, including those who made wine.
Second, during this part of oak barrel history, there were changes at sea. Ship building was, for a very long time, accountable for the largest consumption of timber. Revolutionary warmongers, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, did what they could to ensure naval might and therefore instituted major replanting projects. Navies moved to constructing ships from metal during the 19th century, which is a very poignant transition in the oak barrel history.
The result of this change at sea resulted in a wealth of oak … the wood that is perfectly suited for barrel making.
At last, during this time in oak barrel history, the increase of oak could increase the amount of oak barrels that were in wine cellars. As you will soon find out, these new oak barrels have very profound effects on wine and thus, it is not hard to imagine that this would push winemakers to learn more about, exploit and control these effects.