BEHOLD the nobility of vinegars. Historically prized as a preservative, flavor enhancer, digestive, deodorant, disinfectant and medicine, vinegar is one of mankind’s great discoveries. Nearly as great as wine!
The earliest records of vinegar date to Babylonia about 5,000 BC, where ancient Babylonians used it as a food preservative, digestive and cleaning agent. Rice vinegar first makes an appearance in Chinese documents in 1,200 BC.
The histories and usages of wine and vinegar have many parallels, not the least of which is their use as flavor enhancers and digestives. In both these cases it’s all about the acidity. Acidity in wine enhances the fresh and crisp qualities of the beverage while making it more food friendly. All wines have a certain level of acidity but white and sparkling wines tend to have the most. Common wine descriptors like fresh, tart, bracing, crisp, sour and lively are all related to the acidity of a wine.
Naturally as a wine lover I have a bias, but many gourmets would agree with me that the best vinegars are made from quality wines. Made from either white or red grape varieties, wine vinegars are some of the best in the world. The best examples are aged in wood and share production and taste similarities with their wine counterparts. Let’s take a look at two of the best.
Italy’s most famous vinegar is Balsamico, or Balsamic as we refer to it in English. The first written documents related to this vinegar date back to 1046 where it was mentioned as a tonic. The word derives from the Greek “balsamon” which means “restorative” or “healing.” There are various grades of Balsamic vinegar, from commercial to collector, but the best Balsamic vinegars all come from either the Modena or Reggio Emilia regions in Italy and are geographically protected by the Italian and EU governments.
These premium, traditionally-made Balsamic vinegars are made from a reduction of the popular white wine grape Trebbiano and aged for a minimum of 12 years in at least three different types of wood barrels. The barrels used to age Balsamic vinegar are considerably smaller than barrels used to age wine. The best examples of Balsamic vinegar are aged for a longer period of time in a succession of ever-smaller oak, ash, mulberry, chestnut, cherry and other barrels.
Don’t be fooled by clever imitations, true Balsamic vinegars must have the terms Aceto Balsamico Traditionale di Modena (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) or Aceto Balsamico Traditionale di Reggio Emila (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emila) on the label. Both of these prized Balsamic vinegars offer an enchanting experience of sweetness, complexity and of course good acidity. As in wine, it’s the acidity that helps the balance of the vinegar and makes it a superb companion to many foods.
Centuries ago the first Sherry vinegar was made by mistake and thrown away. Gradually, Sherry wine producers realized that the overly acidic “spoiled” wine in the barrels had a special use in the gastronomy world. Today the biggest market for Sherry vinegars is in France where French chefs and food lovers use this precious liquid to enhance their vinaigrette dressings and embellish the flavors of many of their most prized dishes. French chefs aren’t alone. From Spain to New York to Tokyo, many of the world’s most famous chefs use Sherry vinegar to enrich and freshen their dishes.
High quality Sherry vinegars are extremely aromatic and much more intense and flavorful than ordinary wine vinegars. Like Sherry wines, this vinegar must be made from one of the three authorized white wine grapes, namely, Palimino, Pedro Ximenez or Muscatel and can only be produced within the Sherry triangle bordered by the city of Jerez de la Frontera and the towns of Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria. The minimum aging of basic Sherry vinegars in seven months in American oak using the unique solera stacked oak barrel aging system also used to make Sherry wines. As with Balsamic vinegars, the best examples are aged for several more years. The three age categories are Vinagre de Jerez with at least seven months’ aging, Vinagre de Jerez Reserva with at least two years of aging and Vinagre de Jerez Gran Reserva with at least ten years of aging. The Consejo Regulador of Jerez-Xeres-Sherry, the official regulatory body, closely monitors every step of production to ensure quality.
Though they live in parallel universes and share a great deal of production, taste and texture commonality, pairing wines with vinegar isn’t easy. The high degree of acidity or sourness in vinegar often overwhelms or clashes with wines making them taste unpleasant. The rule of thumb when serving wines with dishes having vinegar is to match the acidity of the wine with the acidity of the vinegar. Albarinos from Spain, Sauvignon Blancs from Europe, the Americas and New Zealand and dry Rieslings are usually fine companions. Unoaked Chardonnays also work well.
The sweetness of Balsamic vinegar somewhat offsets the sourness making these vinegars more wine friendly. Wines ranging from lightly oaked whites to fresh reds like Italian Barberas are lovely partners to many dishes featuring Balsamic vinegar.
The higher acidity in many Sherry vinegars makes them best friends to many foods but presents a challenge to wines. The easiest and most reliable partner to dishes with a hefty dash of Sherry vinegar is of course a nice Manzanilla or Fino Sherry. Acid whites and non-dosage sparkling wines are also good options.
Most Sherry vinegars, like fortified Sherry wines, are made from the Palomino grape; but also like the wines sweeter versions of Sherry vinegars may be made partially or wholly from the Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel varieties.
The solera system of aging Sherry wines in stacked barrels is also used to age most Sherry vinegars.