Looking down on the picturesque old town of Heidelberg stands an impressive castle dating back to the 13th century. The structure’s tumultuous history includes numerous kings, wars, destruction and, in turn, reconstruction, much of which is still visible to this day.
Another, more niche aspect of this castle’s story, is found in its wine cellar. Heidelberg Castle is also home to the largest wine barrel in the world, known as the ‘Heidelberg Tun’, it could contain nearly 300,000 bottles of wine.
It’s easy to see why the German town of Heidelberg has such a storied history. With a medieval ‘Altstadt’ (old town), a beautiful church, a prestigious university and a breathtaking palace, the town, which straddles the banks of the picturesque Neckar River, has been a hub of intellectual activity in recent centuries.
Heidelberg’s reputation was enhanced further during the romantic movement, with prominent international figures such as Victor Hugo and J.M.W Turner spending time there. The town remains a popular tourist destination, and the castle, despite largely being in ruins for much of the last 200 years, is one of Heidelberg’s main attractions.
If you venture up the hill, underneath the building’s impressive facade, you can also find another noteworthy attraction. In the castle’s basement lies the world’s largest wine barrel. It dates all the way back to 1751, and while originally one of four giant vats built in Heidelberg, only one remains intact to this day.
An estimated 130 oak trees were used to create the Heidelberg Tun. At the time of its construction, it could hold over 58,500 gallons or 221,376 liters. That number has now been reduced to 57,854 gallons, or 219,000 liters, as a result of the drying wood. Even then, the Heidelberg Tun can hold enough liquid to fill 292,000 bottles of wine.
Despite this, the existing barrel has spent the majority of its life empty. It was famously slashed by conquering French soldiers, hoping to break into it and celebrate their victory with a few million glasses of Heidelberg’s nectar, but they could not pierce the wood and eventually realized, presumably to great disappointment, that the the Heidelberg Tun was bone dry anyway.
Local folklore states that the famous 17th-century jester and court dwaft Perkeo of Heidelberg is the tun’s eternal keeper. Perkeo was known to enjoy a tipple. Born Clement Pankert in northern Italy, he is said to have adopted the name Perkeo due to frequently answering “perché no?” (meaning “why not?”) when asked if he wanted another glass of wine. Perkeo remains a popular figure in Heidelberg, and images of him are throughout the town.
While such a vast tun may seem like an indulgence in an area famed for its winemaking, these giant tankards actually served a relatively practical purpose. At the time, taxes on the public were largely collected via goods rather than currency. For many people, this meant paying through wine. The ruling elite needed somewhere to keep all the wine, hence the construction of these gargantuan barrels.
Nowadays, a staircase lets visitors walk around the tun, and there is a wooden surface – even described as a dancefloor – on top of it. Wine tastings are also available in the Heidelberg wine cellar.