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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?

Published Jan. 1, 2011. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 21: French-Inspired Comfort Food

UpdateNovember 2015
Our winning red wine vinegar, Laurent du Clos, has become increasingly hard to find in stores or online, and its importer admits its distribution has become very limited. If you're unable to locate it, we recommend the second-place vinegar, Pompeian.
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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 ...

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