I love the history of wine, so when I was offered this story for publication, I happily agreed to print it. Thanks to Diana Carlton of Vintage Cellars for researching and writing the story!
Since the discovery of fermentation, people have enjoyed drinking wine. For nearly the same length of time, people have looked for ways of storing their wine, to keep it fresh, to keep it tasty, and to keep it portable. Here is a rundown of the different types of vessels used for keeping the fruit of the vine.
Wineskins, which are containers made from animal hide or bladders, are some of the earliest known vessels for storing wine. It is difficult to say when they originated, since leather degrades over time, but written references go back to Homer’s Odyssey and continue through Shakespeare’s plays.
Clearly, then, wineskins were seen as useful, durable containers for a fairly broad swath of history, and existed concurrently with pottery vessels, barrels, and bottles. It is still possible to buy wineskins today from traditional craftsmen who make them from goatskin.
The ancient Greeks kept their wine in large clay vessels called amphorae, which were used to transport wine all over the Greek empire. Amphorae are shaped like long, tapered vases, with a pair of handles at the top. Their shape meant that they could be strung together by a rope through the handles and carried on ships in this manner like bunches of grapes.
When not on ships, the pointed ends could be placed in the soft earth to keep the contents cool. Indoors, special stands were created to hold them since, due to their shape, they could not stand upright. For centuries, amphorae and other clay vessels were the primary way of storing and transporting wine around the known world, from the days of the Greeks until the end of the Roman Empire.
Barrels originated with the Gauls sometime around 100BC. When Romans reached Gaul they wrote in puzzlement about the strange wooden vessels that the Gauls used to store their own fermented beverage of choice, namely beer.
Wine didn’t really catch on in Gaul until the Romans came in and discovered grape varieties that could withstand the colder climate and occasional frosts. Then, winemaking took off in the Bordeaux region, a tradition that continues quite famously to this day.
When grapes began to be cultivated in Gaul, it was only natural that the wooden casks, previously reserved for beer, would be adapted to the new beverage. And when the Romans realized that the wooden barrels were stronger, lighter, and more portable than amphorae, barrels for wine became all the rage.
Glass bottles are relative newcomers in the wine scene. Though glass vessels have certainly been around since Roman times, they were generally for household use—serving the wine, rather than buying and selling it. Because glass is so breakable, and because hand blown glass can’t be made to a standard measure, using bottles as a primary mechanism for storing wine just wasn’t practical.
It wasn’t until the 17th century, when coal-fuelled furnaces replaced wood-burning ones, that it became possible to blow glass into thicker and darker bottles than previously. With the addition of the fashion for using cork stoppers, glass bottles suddenly became suitable for the transportation and aging of wines.
By the 18th century, the size and shape of the bottles was standardized for ease of shipping, and people began storing bottles in specially designed wine cellars to age their wines to perfection.
The rest, as they say is history. Who knows how people will be keeping wine in the next few hundred years?