Vinegar is the son of wine
Sherry Vinegar, despite belonging to a wide family of quality fruit, wine, malt, and rice-based vinegar, is renowned in the gastronomy world for its intense and complex flavors. Every food professional, from 3 Michelin starred chefs to trainee sous chefs are aware of its great culinary potential. It is used to enhance vinaigrettes, soups, salads, sauces, and is an essential ingredient in local cuisine, Gazpacho being the obvious example. French chefs, in particular, have long regarded the Andalucian Vinagre de Jerez as the only choice for some dishes, and France has been the key market for Sherry Vinegars for many years. Considering the high esteem that Sherry Vinegar is held in, it may come as a surprise that its producers used to discard the vinegar, dismissing it as a failed byproduct of Sherry itself.
Vinagres de Jerez
Spain’s credentials as a producer of high-quality wine vinegar are well documented; it is actually the world’s largest producer of wine vinegar and the Vinagres de Jerez today stands at the top of that quality tree. They are made in Andalusia, southern Spain’s most exotic and enticing region in the famed “sherry triangle” which lies in the province of Cadiz and includes the quaint town of Jerez de la Frontera itself. Indeed, Andalusia is the land of fortified wines and without doubt, the best of these is Sherry. The Sherry process has essentially remained the same over the centuries: the local Palomino and Pedro Ximenez grapes undergo a standard fermentation and are subsequently fortified with grape spirit and then aged according to the Solera system, whereby Sherries from different vintages are mixed and aged gradually. The process undertaken to create the vinegars is largely a mirror of the wine-making system, although historically Sherry Vinegars were never sold as a gourmet product until the mid 1950s, when winemakers realized they could market a superior product (instead of simply giving it away) by aging the vinegar in the same ways as their fine sherries. And so a new category of vinegar was born.
How Sherry Vinegar is Produced
The method by which Vinagre de Jerez is made is strictly controlled by the Sherry Regulatory Council – the vinegar is held in such high regard that they are legally protected as a designation of quality or D.O (appellation). The process starts with the newly fermented wines being exposed to a secondary fermentation process, whereby acetic acid bacteria turn the wine into vinegar. The vinegar must then be aged in America oak under the D.O guidelines. These barrels will have been used to produce Sherry and over time the vinegar from different vintages are blended to create a fantastic end product. The final product must have a minimum of 7 degrees acidity, and many examples are aged for up to 30-50 years, resulting in a deep flavor, dark color and a lovely softness of texture. Truly, a vinegar for gourmets!
Of course, Sherry Vinegars are not homogenous and various styles are produced under their appellation guidelines. They vary according to the length of barrel age, in a similar way to for example the traditional Rioja Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva classification. The standard Vinagre de Jerez only needs a minimum of 6 months, but the Reservas tend to have over 2 years, and the Gran Reservas between 10-20 years. Some have much longer periods! They will also vary depending on the grapes used in the wine, Palomino vinegar for example tend to be more savory than the sweet Pedro Ximenez vinegar.