The Heidelberg Tun is the world’s largest wine barrel. It is currently 219,000 liters (57,854 U.S. gallons) in size. Karl Theodor, the Prince Elector, built the Heidelberg Tun in 1751. Building oversized wine barrels was a trend at the time, and several German communities and villages fiercely competed to see who could create the largest barrel. The first big barrel at Heidelberg was constructed in 1591, forcing Duke Ludwig of Wurttemberg to construct an even bigger barrel for his Ludwigsburg Palace. Karl Theodor took over from there by building Heidelberg Tun. This is Heidelberg’s fourth wine barrel.
The Heidelberg Tun was used to warehouse wine produced and paid taxes to the Bavarian ruler. After about ten years, the barrel began to spring leaks, and several attempts at repair proved unsuccessful.
Karl Theodor became king of Bavaria in 1777. He immediately relocated his court to the plains, where he constructed a new palace called the Mannheim Palace. Surprisingly, Heidelberg Tun survived despite the castle’s crumbling after Karl Theodor departed.
The Heidelberg Tun, according to a legend, drew the attention of French soldiers who attempted to break into the barrel in order to satisfy their desire for wine. Axe scratches may still be seen on the dark oak staves as a result of their aggressiveness. Nevertheless, given the fact that the last time the French occupied Heidelberg was in 1689—more than a half-century before Heidelberg Tun was constructed—the story is likely a myth.
The Heidelberg Castle and the Heidelberg Tun were already tourist attractions by the 1800s. In fact, it was a Frenchman named Charles de Graimberg, a curator, collector, and artist, who fought for the preservation of the castle ruins as a consequence of his actions the castle still stands.
The Heidelberg Tun is mentioned in literature, movies, and pop songs. Various artists such as Mark Twain and Ezra Pound have mentioned the Heidelberg Tun in their work. The Heidelberg Tun and the legendary Perkeo were mentioned by Ezra Pound in The Pisan Cantos, Canto LXXX (published 1948). The huge but vacant vat is made to ” rhyme” with the emptiness of war and the poet’s desire for human companionship, which he was denied while imprisoned in the US Army Detention Center outside Pisa, Italy.
“Most of all, it will be necessary to attempt a description of this marvelous object. The reader must imagine the existence of a pear-shaped vessel, but one so vast that it would hold many thousands of gallons and weigh close upon two hundred tons. He must further imagine this cask to be some forty feet in height and perhaps thirty feet in width.” (CC:3)
A quote from the book “The Lost World” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle written in 1912, is one of several mentions of The Heidelberg Tun as a pirate treasure by other authors as well as some newspapers during the 19th century.
Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880 — “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 thousand bottles, and other traditions say it holds eighteen hundred million barrels. I think it is 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.”
The barrel lies empty today, yet it attracts tourists from all over the world.