History of wine ageing
Even the Ancient Greeks and Romans knew that aged wines were top notch and they stored wine in earthenware amphorae for many years. As the Roman Empire expanded north, it became increasingly difficult to transport wines in amphorae. The Romans looked toward their Mesopotamian neighbours who used palm wood barrels.
From amphorae to barrels
Unfortunately, palm wood was not very pliable, a quality that is needed for the manufacturing of wine barrels. As the Romans reached Gaul, where oak trees stood in abundance, they found the answer to their problem – oak barrels. Oak was softer and more pliable and had a tight grain which not only made it easy to produce barrels but also made the barrels more water resistant. Other types of woods that have been used for wine storage and maturation are acacia, chestnut, cherry, and mulberry. The amphorae were discarded as a method of transporting wine within the next two centuries.
Wine maturation in oak
Naturally, it was soon discovered that the oak was not only a useful vessel to store and transport wine, but that it also improved wine quality by imparting pleasant aromas. This discovery ultimately led to the practice of barrel maturation.
Fortification of wine
Efforts to improve the longevity of wine, especially to last during long journeys by ship, has been ingenious and lead to the discovery of wine styles that are still appreciated today. It was soon discovered that wines with higher alcohol were more robust against the onslaught of ageing. The reason for this is that high alcohol kills active yeast cells that may still be present after fermentation. In the past, filtration methods were not as effective as they are now, and unwarented secondary fermentations often led to wine spoilage. Some merchants added spirits to their wines to make it survive their full journey across treacherous oceans, and so the style of fortified wines was born.
Glass and cork
In the 17th century, the glass bottle and cork stopper came into existence. As the craft of glassmaking improved, it was possible to produce sturdier glass bottles that could survive the transportation journey. At first, the bottles had a large bottom and a short neck, but as time went by, the bottles’ shaped morphed into the familiar forms that we know today. Until 1860, it was rare to see wine in bottles as it was illegal to sell stored in that way. The combination of cork stoppers and wine were soon found to be a suitable way to not only transport wine but also to age wine for longer periods.
With modern winemaking technologies, wines are lasting longer, and many of the new technologies in packaging is geared towards making it easier to transport wine. Glass bottles are heavy, and alternatives like flexitanks and even bag-in-a-box and tetra packs offer lighter, less expensive solutions. However, for wine maturation, the oak barrel and the glass bottle with a cork stopper have stood the test of time and will remain the favourite tools for ageing wine.