Solera vs Orleans – the age-old battle between vinegar making traditions
The Art of Artisan Vinegar – Part II
by Eliza Ward

When it comes to vinegar, traditional is always better. Although I would contend that true artisan vinegars are always produced using a natural fermentation and aging process, there are two traditional methods of vinegar production that are broadly known for creating the highest quality vinegars – the Solera Method and the Orleans Method (See prior post). Typically, the Solera method is associated with the production of balsamic vinegar, but it’s also used when producing good quality Sherry vinegar, and the Orleans method is associated with the production of wine vinegar.

Balsamic Vinegar and the Solera Method 
 

Traditional Balsamic is made from late harvest white Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes, which are pressed and cooked in copper cauldrons over open flame until some of the water has evaporated and the juices are concentrated. This first step in the balsamic-making process concentrates the flavors, and is one of the reasons balsamic is so deliciously sweet with hints of caramel flavor. This concentrated grape juice must is called saba.

The cooked juice (saba) is then added to a oak wooden barrel, some older balsamic is added to the saba in order to introduce the needed bacteria, or "mother". The concoction is then left to age and turn into balsamic black gold - a process that takes years.

The barrels are left open to the air, covered only by cloth, to allow for evaporation and oxygen entry, both of which are necessary for the balsamic vinegar dual fermentation process. Over the multi-year aging period, the juice is transferred through a series of successively smaller barrels, each of which is made from a different type of wood. Although the first 6 years the balsamic is aged exclusively in oak, after that initial introduction, each family has its own unique combination of woods, which contributes to each family’s balsamic vinegar’s unique flavor and aroma – the family’s "secret sauce", as it were. And some balsamics are aged as long as 100 years - can you imagine what sweet and think and complex goodness that must be?

Although this is a very simple description of a very complex, multi-year process, hopefully it sheds some light on why balsamic is so delicious, flavorful, and special – and can be quite expensive. The alternative is commercially-produced “balsamic”, which isn’t balsamic at all.

Commercial balsamic is generally made from wine vinegar that has been treated with caramel colorants and sugars until it roughly imitates the taste of the traditional balsamic in sweetness and acidity – although, let's be real, nothing can imitate the flavor of a true balsamic aged for years in wood barrels. Sure, the commercial stuff is fine for adding sweetness or acid to a steak where the flavor will be cooked off anyways, but it’s a far cry from the flavors that real balsamic should be. It’s hard to fake that 12-year, aged-in-wood complexity, and if you have ever tried the real thing, you would immediately agree. The commercial stuff is just not the same – not even close!

Wine Vinegar and the Orleans Method

The other big player in the world of vinegar is wine vinegar. Wine vinegar is what every wine, if left on your kitchen counter too long, will become. But, that doesn’t mean that all wine vinegars are created equal.

The production of traditional wine vinegar, as we know it today, began in the middle ages in France and evolved, side by side, with some of the most prominent wines in the world. Today, we call this traditionally French vinegar-making method the Orleans method, as it was perfected and codified in the Orleans region of France – thus the name.

 

Making vinegar is a deceptively simple process, but producing quality and deliciousness requires precision, a bit of artistry, plus an amazing amount of patience. The complexity and flavor of Orleans style vinegar comes from the blending of ‘old’ vinegars with the new wines, and a suite of aging barrels that previously held wine – similar to the Solera method. The result is full-bodied, flavorful, and nutrient-rich vinegar that is impossible to find from today’s large-scale commercial wine vinegar producers.

This method requires that the aging barrel is left approximately 1/5 full with vinegar from the last batch, and then filled-up approximately half-way with the next batch of wine. Of course, the exact amount of aged vinegar reserved from one batch to the next is different for every producer – and is part of what makes artisan vinegars artisan and each unique. Every producer has their own special recipe. This blending is done because the bacteria in the older vinegar initiate the fermentation process in the new wine; again, it’s the wine vinegar’s ‘mother’.

The wine is then left to ferment for at least three months, but sometimes as long as three to five years – or even longer. Although much of the fermentation from alcohol into acetic acid happens within the first 6-12 months, the maker may choose to let the process go longer, or until the desired acidity and flavor profile is achieved.

 

Although the Solera and Orleans method are similar and both are used by vinegar producers, the end result is, in my mind, undisputed: There is nothing quite like true artisan-produced and aged vinegar, and #realfood takes real time and real (quality) raw ingredients – no way around it!


Click here to see our selection of Wine Vinegars

Click here to see our selection of Balsamic Vinegars

Click here to see our selection of Sherry Vinegars

Clicke here to read about: The Health Benefits of Apple Cider Vinegar

Click here to read about: The Art of Artisan Vinegar - Part I

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