barrel

Springfield Model 1855 Musket

How The Musket Made Wine Bottles Possible

Muskets and wine bottles may not have much in common at first glance… but when a musket jams then the two become far more similar…

Before the invention of the modern glass wine bottle, wine used to be stored in clay pots called amphora or in wooden barrels. Glass bottles could be made by heating silica sand but they were very thin and were not robust enough to survive transportation. Furnaces could not heat silica sand to sufficiently high temperature and in large enough quantities to economically produce a thicker glass bottle.

In the 17th century, the British invention of the coke-powered furnace solved this problem. Larger furnaces could be built to make enough glass at sufficiently high temperatures to mass produce glass bottles. By the 18th century glass blowing factories were turning our millions of narrow necked glass bottles a year. These bottles were all different sizes, roughly equivalent in size to the lung capacity of the glass blower, around 700ml to 800ml, made with a single blow.

Wine bottles were now robust enough to survive transportation but they needed to be stoppered. Another British innovation saw the use of stoppers made from the bark of the Quercus Suber tree, a species of Oak native to Spain and Portugal. These trees, now commonly known as cork trees, grow a thick bark from which cork is produced. Ingeniously, once the bark is harvested the tree simply regrows it.

So where do muskets come in? This firearm evolved as a handheld version of the cannon. It became the primary infantry weapon of the 18th and 19th centuries. Muskets were loaded with lead ammunition packed into the barrel by a long steel tool called a ramrod. After numerous shots the barrel would become lined with deposits and prone to jamming. The primary way to remove a jammed musket ball was to use a bulletscrew or gun worme. These resemble a modern corkscrew which could be attached to the ramrod and then screwed into the musket ball to pull it out.

Presumably, when soldiers did not have sabres to hand they used their gun wormes to remove corks from bottles. The rest is history.

Nobody really knows who invented the corkscrew. However, the first corkscrew patent was Patent No 2061 granted to Reverend Samuel Henshall, Princes Street, Parish of Christchurch, Middlesex, on August 24, 1795. His design featured a disc called a Henshall button, fixed to the base of the screw to prevent it going too far into the cork. The disc was concave to compress the cork, preventing it from breaking apart. Once the screw was fully inserted the disc gripped the top of the cork to help break the adhesion of the cork to the bottle. Henshall clearly didn’t invent the corkscrew, but his design was successful enough to be used for a hundred years.

So there you have it. The next time you use a cork screw be thankful that you are pulling the cork out of a bottle, not a jammed musket ball out of a musket!

Image is “Springfield Model 1855 – AM.030363” by Armémuseum (The Swedish Army Museum) – Armémuseum (The Swedish Army Museum) through the Digital Museum (http://www.digitaltmuseum.se). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Age wine in 48 hours? You’ve got to be Oaking!

Well, the pun was rubbish, maybe the product is better.

We were surprised to come across an implausible-sounding wine gadget called Oak Bottle. Supposedly in a mere 24-48 hours you can accomplish what takes months or even years with established wine ageing practices.

How can this miracle be accomplished? Oak bottle is, as you might have guessed, a bottle made of oak. The theory goes that instead of leaving your wine in a standard 225 litre oak bottle for a while to age it, simply emptying a cheaper bottle of wine into an Oak Bottle will have the same effect, but in less time. The manufacturers claim that as there is less liquid and more oak, hence a greater surface area for the wine to be in contact with, that the oak maturing process happens more quickly.

Ageing wine in oak barrels has been common practice for wine makers for centuries. Recently we posted about the world’s oldest wine being rehoused for only the third time, and it was well over 500 years old. Oak barrels add flavours of vanilla, spice and impact tannins.They allow wine to interact with oxygen very slowly, often resulting in 10% of the wine in a barrel evaporating over the course of a year.

The top fifty most expensive wines in the world are oak aged. So the prospect of being able to age a cheaper wine and make it taste like a more expensive wine will surely appeal.

It has long been known that smaller barrels affect wine more quickly due to the greater surface area to volume ratio. So perhaps the notion that a 750ml Oak Bottle might be able to age wine in a few days is not so silly after all.

We remain skeptical however. If you fancy experimenting, they are available here. You even have a choice of flavours.

Image is “Wine Barrels” by Sanjay AcharyaOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

World’s Oldest Wine In A Barrel Is Rehoused… Again

Lying in the Cave Historique des Hospices de Strasbourg in France is a very old wine. It is an Alsatian white wine made 20 years before Christopher Columbus set sail from Palos de la Frontera in Southern Spain to explore the Americas.

Having been around for more than half a millennia it’s not surprising that the barrel it was originally housed in failed and was replaced in 1718. After it was discovered that the newer barrel was leaking last April (2014) the wine was transferred to a steel vat whilst a new barrel was made to house it. Apparently, this week the wine was transferred to the new barrel built by people from the Radoux cooperage in France.

Incredibly this wine has only been tasted four times.

The first was in 1576 to celebrate an unlikely alliance between Strasbourg and Zürich, Switzerland. Strasbourg doubted that Zurich, around 150 miles away, would be a useful partner. The Swiss overcame French doubts by bringing porridge to them in under a day. This is now celebrated in the Hirsebreifahrt, or millet porridge trip, every ten years.

The second was in 1718 to celebrate the laying of the first stone of what would become Strasbourg’s first public hospital.

The third was during the Second World War. On 23rd November 1944 General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque led the 2nd French Armoured Division in liberating Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, from German occupation.

Finally, in 1994 tests were conducted by the department in charge of policing products and preventing fraud, the Direction Générale de la Concurrence, de la Consommation et de la Répression des Fraudes (DGCCRF). Seemingly they also tasted it as apart from remarking that the wine has an ABV of 9.4% they also said:

“the old thing has maintained an astonishing sprightliness… a powerful, very fine aroma.”

This is a pretty remarkable story… a little too remarkable… whilst researching I noted that Philippe Junger, in charge of the cellars, said in 2003 in an article from Jancis Robinson:

“About one percent of the volume evaporates each year, it’s the angels’ share, so we add a bottle of dry white wine every three months.”

Being the wine geeks that we are, it seemed to us that if this was the case then probably not much of the original wine would now be left. Using our rusty maths the Charles Rose Wines team reckons that in fact less than 1% of the original wine would now be present.

Can we really still call this a 1472 vintage? Junger also said:

“… in this barrel there is dry matter from at least 300 litres of 1472 wine, so it remains a 1472 vintage.”

Perhaps for such a historically significant wine we can just give it the benefit of the doubt.

Image is by Marylou Jean (photo), Alchemica (sorting, storing), TroisiemeLigne (comments, localization) (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons