The ancient Greeks and Italians seemed happy to ship their wines in rather fragile amphorae. Herodotus refers to palm-wood casks using in shipping Armenian wine to Babylon in Mesopotamia, but it is really the iron age and the northern Europeans (the Celts in particular) who developed the wooden barrel for transporting goods.
The wine barrel was traditionally used for storage and transportation of goods. Now it's almost exclusively used in the production of fine wines and spirits. The barrel is traditionally referred to as a keg when empty and cask when full. We'll use barrels to make it easier.
The capacity of a barrel comes from both practical experience and historical 'capacity'. A generally agreed assumption relates the volume of the barrel to the amount of grapes harvested from a set piece of land. A 'sadon' was an area of around 830 m2 having some 900 vines (French vines are planted much more densely than Australian ones). A worker would be allotted a 'wadge' when he had cut back and tied the area, thus a 'sadon' wage.
The harvest would generally yield around 450 litres per 'sadon'. Two barrels per 'sadon', approx 225 litres per barrel. Another popular barrel size is the Borgogne (Burgundy) barrel at 228 litres. It's safe to say that barrels from different regions were somewhere between 200 and 230 litres depending on the amount harvested and what wine could be made from the harvest.
The 225 litre Bordeaux barrel is the most widely used size today and it's common name is the barrique. Its dimensions are 940 to 945 mm in length, 550 to 555 mm in diameter in head and 690 to 695 mm in diameter in what is named the dump or bilge. The chateau Bordeaux has staves around 22 mm thick while the more robust transport Bordeaux uses 27 mm staves. The chateau Bordeaux is a very elegant barrel often having wicker and chestnut bracing across the head.
The Borgogne (at one time found only in Burgundy) is 228 litres in capacity and slightly shorter and wider than the Bordeaux while still have the robust 27 mm staves.
A Hogshead is around 300 litres while a Puncheon is around 400 litres in capacity. Each cooper may have their own variations in sizes, but the traditional Bordeaux and Borgogne barrels will be found anywhere.
* Reproduced with permission from Peter Svans at The Gurdies Winery