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Red Wine Vinegar
Does aging make a difference in vinegar, or does it all boil down to the grapes you start with?
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What You Need To Know
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.
How Wine Vinegar is Made
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 ...
Everything We Tested
“Good red wine flavor” won the day for this French import. Tasters liked the “nicely rich,” “well-balanced,” and “fruity” flavor that came through in the pickled onions, and they praised the “clean, light, pleasant taste” and “subtle zing” it added to the vinaigrette.
Tasters were enthusiastic about this “very mild, sweet, pleasant” red wine vinegar with “tang” that was in “harmonious balance.” It was “not harsh at all,” but had a “bright, potent taste” with “really pleasing red wine flavor.”
Recommended with reservations
Tasters praised our former favorite supermarket brand’s “winy” and “fruity” taste with “buttery” and “briny” undertones, but it stumbled in the pickled onions, inspiring remarks about its “watery,” “thin,” and “wimpy” flavor.
Tasted on its own, this domestic red wine vinegar was deemed “bright and sweet with good red wine flavor.” Once cooked, however, a few tasters noticed a “sour, almost fermented taste” that was “too harsh” to let the wine flavor through.
Some tasters liked its “tart,” “fruity,” and “cherry/nectarine” notes, but this vinegar also received the most complaints about its “acetone” or “nail polish remover” smell and taste.
Distinguishing itself with its perceived sweetness, this vinegar with “berry” and “floral” notes didn’t offend, nor did it wow tasters, whose comments included “middle-of-the-road quality” and “no zip or zing.”
Some tasters appreciated this vinegar’s “winy and sweet” flavor and “nice balance” with “just the right tang.” Others, however, found it “harsh,” “sour,” and “sharp” with a “saccharine aftertaste.”
This vinegar had a “bright and zippy” presence in vinaigrette and a “refreshing bite” in the pickled onions, but its lack of “real red wine taste” allowed the acidity to prevail, making it harsh for some.
“Pucker city!” wrote one taster about this “strong” and “punchy” Tuscan import, the most acidic vinegar we tasted. But one taster in the vinaigrette round claimed, “It’s the first time … I’ve picked out red wine flavor.”
This “strong, pungent, and jarring” Italian vinegar garnered little praise from our tasters because of its overwhelming acidity. One wrote, “I’d like the sample better if it wasn’t so harsh. It has nice sweetness and flavor.” A few tasters liked its “robust, aged flavor” and thought it was “tangier than the others” in a vinaigrette.
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