The truth about airlocks

by Laura Gray on June 18, 2014

Il Palazzone barrel room

In December 2013 a six year old visiting the cellar was prompted by his proud parents to tell me that the glass airlocks on the top of each barrel were designed by Leonardo da Vinci. A blog post to be written I thought to myself at the time, followed by an incredulous scowl and a metaphorical face-slap: “How can I not have known this after nearly twenty years of working in wine cellars?.” I felt the same way when I finally stumbled across the word almandine via the wonderful writer Kyle Phillips. Referring to a deep purple red garnet, almandine should be in the starter kit for Sangiovese lovers. Similarly, I came late to the word “spoofulation” (etymology here and further definition here) but how I love to use it.

But back to the colmatori and why this post has taken six months to materialize. The fact that our barrels are permeable allows the microxygenation necessary for the chemical and organoleptic evolution of the wine. Similarly aereating the wine in the glass during tastings is a way to deliver and enhance the aromas of the wine. However during wine-making direct contact with oxygen is to be avoided. Barrels of any dimension should be kept full to overbrimming in order to avoid oxidation. The airlock consists of two interlocking chambers. The water in the airlock is changed every two days and provides a barrier between the wine and the outside world. A properly maintained airlock will keep away all dangerous bacteria and micro-organisms. It also is a way of keeping tabs on the wine in the barrel since we can see if the wines in our natural temperature cellar are contracting or expanding in volume. I expected to find screeds of entries on Leonardo and airlocks but was surprised to find only one hearsay reference on Tripadvisor. Other articles referred just as sketchily to Galileo. Could my infant visitor have been wrong? Are there still questions to which Google has no answer? After scratching away at the internet like a dog after a bone I finally unearthed the fact that the Glass Museum in Empoli  had organized a colmatori exhibition some years ago. Surely they would know a little more about the origins of this vital piece of cellar equipment? And it turns out that they did. The exhibition was curated by Dr. Silvia Ciappi who establishes that airlocks were invented at the beginning of the 19th century. In the Giornale Agrario Toscano between 1827 and 1828 various intellectuals belonging to the Accademia Dei Georgofili debated the possible improvements in wine production in connection with recent developments in physics and chemistry. They came up with the idea, although the first airlocks were primarily used during fermentation. So not Leonardo folks, sorry.Colmatori

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