Heidelberg Castle: The Legendary Four Great Wine Casks

The four great wine casks of Heidelberg castle are legendary and they draw flocks of tourists every year, even though there’s now only one remaining cask on display.

They already inspired great admiration in 1595: “Many come from afar to see good friends, and to see this barrel, as I myself did lately. And indeed, this work is by God worth seeing, when the appropriate opportunity arises. I don't believe there is another such vessel enriched by the great gift of the vine within the reaches of the globe.” So were the enraptured words of the theologist and witch hunter Anton Praetorius after a visit to Heidelberg.

Praetorius, however, could only have admired the first of the four casks made between 1591 and 1751. The one that he saw, the oldest, is the so-called Johann Casimir cask, named after a count from the Pfalz and built by the cooper Michael Werner from Landau. What astonished Praetorious so much was the cask’s capacity of 127,000 liters, an enormous volume even by today’s standards. Unfortunately it can no longer be admired: the Casimir barrel was destroyed during the Thirty Years’ War and its wood set afire.

A replacement came in 1664, when the elector Karl Ludwig ordered Heidelberg cellar master Johannes Meyer to have an even larger cask made, a wooden structure that could hold 195,000 liters and even have a dance floor on top! The Karl Ludwig cask survived the destruction of the castle during the War of the Palatinate Succession in 1689 and 1693. Repairs in 1702, however, did little to improve its condition.

Thus in 1728, elector Karl Philipp commissioned the construction of cask number three, even more colossal in size, with a capacity of 202,000 liters – or some 4,700 liters larger than its predecessor. It turned out to be leaky and remained so, and thus prompted plans for a fourth barrel. This was completed in 1751 under elector Karl Theodor, and was able to hold a legendary 221,726 liters of wine. Today, the wood has dried out, reducing its capacity to 219,000 liters. The “Grosse Fass,” or Great Cask, was only filled three times, since it, too, always leaked. It was filled by a hose through an opening at the top. This, the Karl Theodor Cask, is the one on display at Heidelberg castle today.

It is guarded by the statue of Perkeo, called the sentinel of the barrel, who was once jester to elector Karl Philipp. Legend has it that the dwarf, only a meter high, but weighing 100 kilograms, was brought to Heidelberg from Tirol by Karl Philipp, who made him his jester, and asked him whether he could drain the barrel all by himself. The fool answered, “Perché no?” – Italian for “why not?” – and henceforth was known as “Perkeo.” He was said to have been the ideal guard for the barrel, having drunk only wine since his childhood. In old age, when he fell sick for the first time in his life, the doctor strongly advised him to drink water rather than wine. Perkeo listened to his advice – and died the very next day.

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