The cellar was founded in 1395, according to the Vins des Hospices de Strasbourg. When it started, it was just outside the city walls among the surrounding vineyards. The hospital, which was originally built in the 1100s, was moved over the cellar in the 14th century after the Black Plague ravaged the town. In its new location, it offered shelter to travelers and the poor, as well as healthcare and a daily dose of wine from the cellars.
Strasbourg is located in the Alsace region of France along the German border. The region is renowned for it’s white wines — especially Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat, and Gewürztraminer — and payments to the hospital were often in wine and vineyards.
The cellar stocks grew for hundreds of years. In 1716 the hospital burned down, but the underground cellars remained intact. The hospital was rebuilt, but during the French Revolution, the wine that the hospital stored started to decrease, as vineyard property was distributed to the people. The amount of wine given to patients also decreased as healthcare became more advanced. Barrels continued to be added throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but the cellar slowly fell into disrepair — including the barrel from 1472.
By 1944, amidst the falling-apart cellar, the historic barrel had it’s final tasting shortly after Strasbourg was liberated by General Leclerc, according to Atlas Obscura. The only two previous tastings were in 1576 to honor a delegation from Switzerland, and in 1716, after the hospital burned down.
The only way to know how the wine tastes for sure is to open the barrel back up. Traditionally, though, the longer a wine is in the barrel, the more oak flavors (think vanilla, cloves, caramel) are imparted onto the wine. After a certain point, wine starts to taste more like barrel than like wine — and a couple centuries is far past that point.
Still, the 1472 barrel is highly regarded. Thanks to a 1994 renovation, the cellar has been restored to its former glory. New wine is made in the cellar, and the profits are used for new medical equipment.
The oldest barrel of wine in the world, however, stays closed.