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The Gigantic Wine Barrel of Heidelberg

In a cellar under the Heidelberg Castle, in the German town of Heidelberg, sits a gigantic wooden keg. It’s the world’s largest wine barrel with an astounding capacity of 219,000 liters—although back in the 18th century, when it was built, the Heidelberg Tun was slightly larger. Sitting empty all these centuries, the oak had dried and shrank reducing the barrel’s capacity by some 2,700 liters.

In fact, the Heidelberg Tun has sat empty for most of its life. When Mark Twain went to visit the famous wine barrel, the Tun’s enormous size failed to excite him. He wrote about it in some disdain in his travelogue A Tramp Abroad

Everybody has heard of the great Heidelberg Tun, and most people have seen it, no doubt. It is a wine-cask as big as a cottage, and some traditions say it holds eighteen hundred thousand bottles, and other traditions say it holds eighteen hundred million barrels. I think it likely that one of these statements is a mistake, and the other is a lie. However, the mere matter of capacity is a thing of no sort of consequence, since the cask is empty, and indeed has always been empty, history says. An empty cask the size of a cathedral could excite but little emotion in me. I do not see any wisdom in building a monster cask to hoard up emptiness in, when you can get a better quality, outside, any day, free of expense.

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Photo credit: Shujaa_777 / Shutterstock.com

The Heidelberg Tun was built in 1751 by the Prince Elector Karl Theodor. In those days, building oversized wine barrels was the fashion and source of intense rivalry between many German towns and villages. The first big barrel at Heidelberg was built in 1591, provoking the rival, Duke Ludwig of Wurttemberg, to build an ever bigger barrel at Ludwigsburg Palace. It remained the largest barrel in the world until Karl Theodor surpassed it with Heidelberg Tun. This was Heidelberg’s fourth wine barrel.

The Heidelberg Tun was used to store wine that the wine growers of the region paid as taxes to the Bavarian ruler. After about ten years, the barrel started to spring leaks and after numerous attempt at repairs, it was decided to retire the barrel and keep it as a show piece instead. At some later date, a dance platform was added to the top of the barrel accessible by a set of steps.

In 1777, Karl Theodor became the ruler of Bavaria, and he immediately moved his court to the plains where he built a new palace, the Mannheim Palace. By then, Heidelberg Castle was already in ruins with damage sustained during many wars with the French. Once Karl Theodor left, the castle crumbled and the townsfolk helped themselves to the stone, wood, and iron from the castle to build their own houses. Surprisingly, Heidelberg Tun survived.

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The ruin of Heidelberg Castle. Photo credit: 1989studio/Shutterstock.com

There is a story that when French soldiers occupied the Heidelberg Castle, the Tun attracted their attention, and they tried to break into the barrel to quench their thirst for wine. One can still see their aggression in the form of axe marks on the dark wooden staves. But the story is probably a myth, because the last time the French occupied the town was in 1689—more than a half a century before Heidelberg Tun was built.

By the 1800s, the Heidelberg Castle and the Heidelberg Tun were already a tourist attraction. In fact, it was a French—Charles de Graimberg, a curator, collector and artist—who fought for the preservation of the castle ruins, and it’s due to his efforts that the castle still stands. He accomplished the first historical excavations in the castle and lived a time long in the castle yard, guarding the castle and preventing people from taking away building materials from the compound. His letters and actions eventually forced the authorities to plan the restoration of the castle.

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The Heidelberg Tun, circa 1900.

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Photo credit: Wei-Te Wong/Flickr

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Photo credit: Shujaa_777 / Shutterstock.com

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