Out of sheer curiosity as to what the world’s largest wine barrel looks like, we check out the Heidelberg Tun, during our visit to Heidelberg Castle. Built from the trunks of 130 oak trees, the Heidelberg Tun is an enormous wine barrel, capable of holding 219,000 litres of wine. But disappointingly for wine-lovers, this wine barrel has not been used to store wine since the late 18th century.
Gigantic wine barrels
Heidelberg Castle has a bizzare tradition of building larger-than-life wine barrels. Before the existing Heidelberg Tun was built, there were three other gigantic wine barrels built in 1591, 1664 and 1728.
The current Heidelberg Tun is 8.50 metres deep and 7.0 metres high. On top of the barrel is a balustraded platform which was built as a dance floor, believe it or not! To get a sense of how big this wine cask is, take a look at the photo above and if you look hard enough, you’ll see me in the top left corner.
The Heidelberg Tun sits in a cavern that is not much bigger than the wine cask itself. You climb to the platform via the set of steps on the right and descend from a spiral staircase on the left.
Mark Twain’s take on the barrel
Among the many people who pondered over why the Heidelberg Tun was built was Mark Twain. His conclusion was that the more one “studies over that, the more uncertain and unhappy he becomes”.
Mark Twain was obviously disappointed at the Heidelberg Tun being empty of wine and in his travelogue “A Tramp Abroad” he wrote: “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.”
What we now know
We now know that the wine barrel was built by the Prince Elector Karl Theodor in 1751 to store the wine paid as taxes by the wine growers of the Palatine. Although the barrel was usually only partially full, it did serve the purpose that it was built for, although not for very long. Ten years after the barrel was built, it began to decay and spring leaks. The last extensive repair was in 1767 and after that it was decided to retire the barrel and keep it as a show piece for visitors to the castle.
So this “monster cask to hoard up emptiness in” is not completely useless. In fact it is a popular tourist attraction in Heidelberg and most visitors, including the groups of school kids that are brought here for history lessons, enjoy climbing to the top for a view down.
Perkeo of Heidelberg
In the cavern holding the Heidelberg Tun you’ll meet Perkeo, the unofficial mascot of Heidelberg. According to local legend, Perkeo, a notable court jester, was put in charge of the Heidelberg Tun.
Perkeo had a good knowledge of wine, but he also had a reputation for massive wine consumption. Whenever asked if he wanted another glass of wine at court functions he would famously reply “perché no?” (which is Italian for “why not”). Perkeo it seems never drinks anything, except for wine, and lived happily into his eighties. One day, when he took ill, the doctor had him drink water and he died the next day!
Mentioned in literature
Although the Heidelberg Tun had a relatively short life as wine barrel, it has been mentioned in many famous literary works such as Jules Verne’s novel Five Weeks in a Balloon, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Washington Irving’s The Specter Bridegroom, Mary Hazelton Wade’s Bertha and not to mention Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad.
Paul Dutton has also drawn our attention to its mention in “Moby Dick”, where Chapter 77 is entitled “The Great Heidelburgh Tun” (variant spelling of the era), the name given by whalers to the sperm whale’s spacious cranial spermaceti reservoir. Thanks, Paul!
So when you visit Heidelberg Castle, check out this famous wine barrel and meet Perkeo, the guardian of the Heidelberg Tun.