From Season 12: New York-Style Pizza at Home
Lately, choosing red wine vinegar at the supermarket gives me the same nervous feeling as trying to pick the right wine for dinner guests. As with balsamic vinegars, the number of red wine vinegars in the condiment aisle has exploded in the past decade. I can choose between brand-name vinegars my mother has used for years and newer ones that boast impressive European pedigrees. Is French better than American? Does aged red wine vinegar provide more depth of flavor? Will a pan deglazed with vinegar that began life as a Zinfandel or Pinot Noir create a sauce that’s more piquant than one flavored with vinegar simply labeled “red”? Considering that some vinegars cost less than 20 cents per ounce, are the ones that cost four or five times as much actually worth the money?
We last tasted red wine vinegars in 2003. Given the proliferation of options since, we decided that it was time to take a fresh look.
Food scientist Harold McGee aptly calls vinegar “the natural sequel to an alcoholic fermentation.” For centuries, humankind supplied the wine, and nature provided it with bacteria (Acetobacter aceti), which, with the help of oxygen, metabolizes wine’s ethyl alcohol and converts it into the acetic acid that gives vinegar its distinctive sharp scent and mouth-puckering flavor. Today, most commercial red wine vinegars are produced via two distinct methods. The first, the Orléans method, was developed in the 14th century. To start fermentation, oak barrels of wine are inoculated with a “mother of vinegar”—a cellulose glob loaded with acetic acid bacteria from an established vinegar. Periodically, vinegar is drawn off and fresh wine added, and the process continues until all the alcohol is converted into acetic acid. Some argue that this method makes for a more flavorful wine vinegar because it gives the flavor compounds time to develop and mature. But it’s also expensive, since it takes months before the vinegar is ready for the market.
In the second, more modern method, wine and bacteria are put in an acetator, a stainless-steel machine that rapidly circulates oxygen through red wine to feed the bacteria. This method converts alcohol into acetic acid in about a day, although some of these rapidly produced vinegars are then put in barrels for additional aging and, presumably, improved flavor.
Domestic varieties of red wine vinegar are typically just 5 to 6 percent acetic acid, while imports are usually in the 7 percent range; the strength is determined by a dilution with water. But the unique flavor profile of a vinegar is influenced not only by acetic acid but also by naturally occurring flavor compounds from the base wine, as well as by new compounds created during the production process. The question was, which of these factors would actually make a difference to our tasters?
We asked 21 staff members to taste and rate 10 red wine vinegars, selected from a list of top-selling national supermarket brands. Most cooks don’t do shots of vinegar unless they’re masochists, but I was curious to learn if we’d get some early preferences right out of the bottle. I assumed that tasters would be partial to the vinegars that were sweet and less harsh, since they’d be tasting these potent substances straight. In fact, the favorite in this round fell right in the middle of the rankings for sweetness and harshness. Tasters, it seemed, liked full flavor and a little sharpness.
While I wasn’t confident that we had a front-¬runner yet, the plain tasting did reveal that some of the vinegars had unpleasant off-flavors and aromas, the most common being the smell of nail polish remover, or acetone. This was not surprising, since any traces of alcohol left in vinegar will bond chemically with acetic acid to create ethyl acetate, a compound that has the same distinctive scent as the acetone found in nail polish remover. “A little bit is OK,” said Mary Ellen Camire, a professor of food ¬science and nutrition at the University of Maine, explaining that acetate can give vinegar a pleasing fruitiness. “But too much can indicate a production failure.”
Sweet and Sour
Next we tasted the vinegars as they would actually be used—in a simple vinaigrette served with butter lettuce and in pickled onions. Surprisingly, some of the harsher vinegars, which had made tasters choke in the plain tasting, were experienced as relatively sweet in the vinaigrette. How could this be?
I recalled that the mayonnaise we had used to help emulsify the vinaigrette contained a small amount of sugar. Our science editor confirmed that the strong, highly acidic vinegars were acting synergistically with this sugar to heighten its sweet taste. Less acidic vinegars, on the other hand, were being pushed into the background, allowing the strong flavor compounds in the extra-virgin olive oil and the mustard to mask sweetness. This told me that a good vinegar needs some muscle in the form of acidity to tease out all the flavors from the bunch.
But in the end, these highly acidic vinegars lost the battle with our tasters. The most expensive of the supermarket brands ended up tied for last place with the other most acidic entry. The majority of tasters simply found them too harsh, especially when sampled plain or in pickled onions. However, since they scored well in our vinaigrette tasting, they might be worth buying if you like a strong, bracing vinegar to dress your salads.
At the top of the heap, a French import knocked our former favorite down a couple of notches with its crisp red wine flavor balanced by stronger than average acidity and subtle sweetness. While this vinegar gets its start in an acetator and then is aged in wooden barrels for two months before bottling, we weren’t convinced that aging was the reason that our tasters gravitated toward this brand. Several of our lowest-ranking vinegars were also aged.
There is one characteristic shared by all three top vinegars: They’re blends. One is made from a mix of red and white vinifera grapes, another adds an aged vinegar sourced from Spain to its domestically produced vinegar, and our former favorite is created from a combination of sweet Concord grapes and winy vinifera-type grapes. (It’s worth noting that our favorite high-end vinegar adds Bing cherry juice to heighten the flavor of its base vinegar.) Multiple varieties of grapes create vinegar with a complex and pleasing taste—aging is not necessarily required.
For everyday red wine vinegar, our winner is hard to beat. At 35 cents per ounce, it’s not the least expensive brand we tasted, but that’s a reasonable price for a vinegar that doesn’t compromise on flavor.
Columela Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Our favorite premium extra-virgin olive oil from a previous tasting, Columela is composed of a blend of intense Picual, mild Hojiblanca, Ocal, and Arbequina olives. This oil took top honors for its fruity flavor and excellent balance. Tasters praised its big olive aroma, big olive taste with a buttery flavor that is sweet and full, with a peppery finish. One taster said: Its very green and freshlike a squeezed olive. Another simply wrote: Fantastic.
|$19 for 17 oz|
Lucini Italia Premium Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Tasters noted this oils flavor was much deeper than the other samples, describing it as fruity, with a slight peppery finish, buttery undertones, and a clean, green taste that was aromatic, with a good balance. It has the flavor that some good EVOOs have, said one admiring taster.
|$19.99 for 500 ml ($39.98 per liter)|
Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Virtually tied for second place, this oil was deemed round and buttery, with a light body and flavor that was briny and fruity, very fine and smooth, and almost herbal, with great balance. Good olive flavor. I could smell it and taste it, approved one taster. In a word, pleasant.
|$17.99 for 750 ml ($23.98 per liter)|
|Recommended with Reservations|
Bertolli Extra Virgin Olive Oil
A clear step down from the top oils, tasters noted overall mild flavor and very little aroma, with only a hint of green olive and a hint of spiciness at the end. In pasta, it was initially not complex, but gradually bloomed in your mouth. Overall, it was worthy of a second bite.
|$12.49 for 750 ml ($16.65 per liter)|
Filippo Berio Extra Virgin Olive Oil
While some tasters found this oil sweet and buttery with medium body and slight spice at the end, others complained that it had zero olive flavor and was so floral its almost like eating perfume; still others noted a bitter aftertaste. In pasta, it was extremely mild to the point of being boring.
|$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
Goya Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Comments: The best comments tasters could muster were mild and neutral. Some liked it on pasta (though one called it Snoozeville), but complaints were myriad: metallic, soapy, briny, hints of dirt. Carped one taster, I cant imagine what is in here, but they have a nerve calling it EVOO.
|$13.99 for 1 liter|
Pompeian Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Comments: While some tasters called this oil mild and smooth, others found it thin, greasy and not very interesting. I bet the cooking water had more olive flavor, speculated one taster; could be canolait is so bland, mused another. A few noted an objectionable aftertaste that was soapy, chemical or mentholthink
|$9.99 for 473 ml ($21.12 per liter)|
Botticelli Extra Virgin Olive Oil
While a few tasters liked this potent oil, others said they detected mushroom, rotten walnuts, a Band-Aid wrapped in a cherry blossom, and a quality that was downright medicinalTriaminic, anyone? Several deemed it overpowering and musky, with a rank, off-flavor. Tastes not like olives but like the armpits of olive laborers, shuddered one.
|$10.99 for 1 liter|
Carapelli Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Italy, Greece, Spain, Tunisia, Turkey, Cyprus, Morocco, and Syria Comments: Nothing remarkable herejust greasy, no flavor, summarized one taster. Where did the olive go? said another. This oil was judged to have a kind of rancid aftertaste that was reminiscent of not only soil, tree resin, and ammonia and grass, but even kitty litter smells and a set of sweaty hockey pads.
|$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
DaVinci Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Although this oil won top place in a previous tasting, because olive oil is an agricultural product, it can differ from year to year. This time, tasters found it washed out and muted, if nice, in a totally bland and unremarkable way. Tasted plain, objections ranged from insipid, with no real complexity to tastes like EVOO mixed with vegetable oil.
|$17.99 for 1 liter|
Star Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Origin: Spain, Italy, Greece, and Tunisia Comments: Boring and not very complex, this oil came across as plastic-y and industrial; some hint of olives, but it fades quickly. Tasters identified off-flavors that were unpleasant, dirty, like rubber and metal, with a sour aftertaste, or at least a bit funky, with a strange taste that was spicy, but in a motor oil kind of way. One simply wrote, Blech.
|$11.99 for 750 ml ($15.99 per liter)|