If you’re anything like me (and my sincere condolences if you are), you’ve probably seen enough George A. Romero flicks to know that when dead things reanimate, good times are not likely to be had. The undead are no fun, and usually add nothing to a dinner party (aside from making dinner of the party). However, there is one entity that can definitely bring a lot to the table when fit and spry and can continue to tantalize once it has, more or less, died and been reborn. And it won’t try to eat your brains.
Though inanimate, wine is probably the most “human” of all foods. Think of how it’s described. Good body. Subtle nose. Great legs. Elegant robe. Feminine, yet assertive with a somewhat earthy demeanor. Maturing beautifully, though still showing the bloom of youth. Utterly charming! Of course, it’s descriptors like these that cause many a wine review to end up as budgie cage liner, but assigning human traits to a wine is as frequent as it is useless and annoying.
Yet there can be no denying that wines, like people, go through life stages — youth, maturity, old age and death. And, like people, many wines gain character and complexity via the passage of time. Yet, when humans leave this mortal coil they typically do so for good. Wine, on the other hand, can transfigure into an entirely new liquid that’s every bit as potable as its predecessor. And while it may be harsh to refer to vinegar as a “wine zombie,” that’s essentially what it is.
Like that of olive oil, salt, pepper, eye of newt, tongue of bat, and other assorted and sundry seasonings typically snugged into the intrepid gourmand’s larder, the story of vinegar goes back a bit. It is referenced in both Christian and Islamic scripture and traces of the substance have been found in Egyptian urns circa 3000 BCE. The word vinegar itself derives from the Old French vin aigre or “sour wine.” Truth be told, it can be made from a range of fermented liquids including beer, cider and fermented fruit juice. It can even be produced synthetically, though you probably wouldn’t want that stuff in your salad dressing. However, given that wine is the most complex of all beverage alcohols (yeah, I hear ya beer people; turn it down for now), we’ll focus our attention on what are no doubt the most complex vinegars, those derived from vino.
CH3CH2OH=2HCH3CHO=CH3COOH (or how to raise the vinous dead)
Like wine, vinegar can be produced with minimal — if any — human intervention. While wine is created by allowing yeast cells to feed on the sugar in grapes in an anaerobic atmosphere, vinegar take the progression a step further. In this case, acetobacter, in the presence of oxygen, converts ethyl alcohol to acetaldehyde, and then to acetic acid (the actual chemical reaction is detailed in the above subhead). So yes, you can make vinegar by simply exposing wine to air and letting nature take its course. Some commercial vinegars are actually made this way. Most, however, are produced in a somewhat more controlled manner with base wine quality and speed (or more precisely, lack thereof) determining the ultimate grade of the final product.
“There are a couple of things that make good vinegar,” explains Barbara Anderson who, along with partner David Mederios, runs Elora, Ontario’s The Village Olive Grove, a boutique specializing in extra virgin olive oil and premium vinegars. “One is starting with a high quality base wine. The other is the amount of time the vinegar is left to age.”
To keep things consistent, “mother of vinegar” is typically added to each new batch of vinegar being created. Mother of vinegar is a sort of jelly-like cellulose goo that forms on the surface of wine as it is converted to vinegar. It contains a high concentration of acetobacter and functions in a manner similar to sourdough in breadmaking or the sour mash used in the production of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whisky. The stuff can even form in finished vinegars. I poured a more or less full bottle of commercial white balsamic down the drain some time ago (before I started researching vinegar) when I noticed that it had inexplicably hatched a flotilla of what appeared to be jellyfish. Mother of vinegar is completely harmless, but if you don’t know what it is, discovering it can be somewhat harrowing.
“With commercial vinegar production, acetobacter and oxygen are added to the base in a large tank, allowing for a quick reaction,” Anderson says. “With a good quality wine vinegar, mother of vinegar is introduced to the base wine and the conversion to vinegar takes place over several weeks or even months. But the key is to have a good quality wine to start with.”
With wine vinegar, your base can span the gamut. Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay, Sherry, Montilla and, in the case of Italy’s famed balsamic, Trebbiano and Lambrusco. The awesome Minus 8 range produced in Niagara, Ontario (which includes Minus 8, Dehydr8 and L8 Harvest), uses eight different varietals, air-dried Riesling and a blend of late-harvest black and white grapes (likely Cabernet France and Vidal) respectively. And like wine, vinegar production methods can vary significantly with the speed of the process, combined with age, ultimately affecting the quality. The three most commonly used methods for wine vinegar are the Orleans method (named after the French town), the balsamic vinegar method and the submerged fermentation method.
“The Orleans method (aka the continuous method) is a very slow, natural method with no mechanization at all,” Anderson explains. Conversion from wine to vinegar takes place in the manner she describes above, with the vinegar resting for several months in a warm room. When it has reached the desired age it is drawn off with about 15 per cent remaining in the barrel to be blended with new base wine.
With Italy’s famous balsamic vinegar, juice from Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes is boiled to concentrate the must before being introduced to barrels made from oak, chestnut, cherry, mulberry and ash, where it sits for a minimum of five years before being mixed with younger wine and finished in smaller barrels.
Submerged fermentation involves the use of large tanks called acetators that are fitted with pumps that send air percolating through the wine within. Nutrients are also pumped in to spur the growth of acetobacter, and the tanks are kept quite warm (between 26 and 38 degrees Celsius). The final product, which can be realized rather quickly using this method, is piped out of the acetator for filtering and aging.
A unique twist to these methods is the “truciolo” or wood shavings system used by Tuscany’s Castello di Volpaia.
“Once the wine has been introduced to the bacterium over the course of 20 to 30 days in a tank containing a maximum of 300 litres, it is moved to a 2000-litre tank containing three stainless steel perforated baskets containing freshly chopped oak and chestnut shavings,” reveals Volpaia’s Nicolò Mascheroni Stianti. “A slowly rotating arm stirs the wine gently over the shavings. The wine percolates through the shavings and falls to the bottom of the tank to be pumped over once again. This process is repeated until all the wine has turned to vinegar.”
Stianti says that the longer the process takes, the better the vinegar is — with the process being extended by limiting the amount of contact the bacterium has with air. The finished product is aged in large chestnut and oak vats (10 to 12 months for red wine vinegar, two to three for white) before being transferred yet again to small oak barriques for finishing.
No matter how they are brought to life, wine zombies make lovely dinner guests. High-quality wine vinegars are excellent bases for salad dressings, but uses don’t stop here. Add a dash to finish off soups, grilled meat and fish dishes. Or try mixing a dash with soda water for a refreshing change of pace. And don’t forget dessert. Try some mixed with fresh fruit or even over ice cream. Scary good.
Tasting Notes: the sweet and the sour
Tasting your way through a range of vinegars can take some doing simply because the acidity levels tend to numb the palate fairly quickly. Anderson has a unique and effective solution. “We use raw sugar cubes to neutralize the acetic acid.” The technique involves allowing the sugar cube to absorb some of the vinegar then tasting it via a series of short slurps off the sugar cube. We started with the “lightest” and worked toward the more intense.
Origin Chardonnay Vinegar, Chile ($22.99/250 ml)
Hints of grassy fruit on the nose with traces of almond and vanilla. Bright and zesty with herbal nuances and a crisp, clean finish. The “Chablis” of vinegars.
O Zinfandel Vinegar, California ($22.99/200 ml)
Aged in oak for two years and infused with Bing cherry to accentuate the fruity overtones, this is a smoky, slightly meaty vinegar that sports nuances of currant and black cherry. The palate shows black cherry, blackberry, pepper and hints of mocha. Complex and lingering.
Alvear “Solera del Capataz” Vinagre de Pedro Ximénez Semiseco, Spain ($16.99/375 ml)
Made from lusciously sweet Pedro Ximénez (“PX”) wine, this vinegar explodes aromatically with caramel, nuts, sultana raisin and clove notes. Similarly intense in the mouth with rich, nutty, fruitcake flavours and lingering nutty finish.
Bellei 8-year-old Balsamic, Italy ($29.99/250 ml)
One of the world’s best-known wine vinegars, Balsamic is typically given extended barrel aging to add both smoothness and intensity. This 8-year-old offers up aromas of coffee, molasses and chocolate, which continue on the palate with complex layers of cocoa, dates, figs and prune.
Bellei 12-year-old Balsamic, Italy ($54.99/250 ml)
The additional aging ups the intensity and complexity (and price) even further. Aromas of smoky dried fruit and nutty caramel mingle with layers of warm, rich, viscous sultana raisin in the mouth. The finish is surprisingly dry and zesty.
Minus 8 “Dehydr8” Vinegar, Canada ($64.99/375 ml)
Who knew vinegars of the calibre of those from Minus 8 were being produced in the Niagara wine region of Ontario? The base wine is made from dehydrated Riesling grapes resulting in vinegar that displays nuances of golden raisin, citrus rind and spice on the nose and complex candied tropical fruit, honey and Asian spices. Very intense with an incredibly long and memorable finish.
Minus 8 Vinegar, Canada ($35.99/100 ml)
From the 1999 vintage comes this ultra-intense vinegar crafted from a base of eight grape varieties that have been allowed to freeze on the vine. The final product is aged in both French oak and bottle. Ripe berries, candy apple, pineapple, caramel and a mild hint of acetate are just some of the aromas found in this vinegar. Loaded with concentrated fruit, mild spice, toasted nuts and caramel. Certainly elevates vinegar to a new level; in fact, it comes off as more complex and intense than Icewine itself.