True Sherry Vinegar – Striking the Perfect Balance
by Eliza Ward
I have to say, Jerez sherry wine and I have had an un-easy relationship through the years. Although today I’m not a big consumer of alcohol, that doesn’t mean I didn’t partake in my youth. One youthful drinking excusion that I'll never forget happened when I was a student in Sevilla, Spain, in the spring of 1984. I was quite young at the time, and an eager participant in the Fair of Seville (Feria de Sevilla) festivities. The Feria is one of Spain’s most well-known fairs, and takes place every April. And, although it was original established as a livestock fair, the Feria now has more to do with dancing the Sevillanas, eating great food, and or course, drinking sherry, than it does with livestock. After all, Jerez, the birthplace of sherry wine, is not far from Sevilla.
But sherry vinegar is a different animal all together. As a drinking sherry, there is no better than that from Jerez. So it would stand to reason that Jerez sherry vinegar would be the best sherry vinegar, right?
If you think Jerez sherry is good, then this sublime culinary “invention” is truly beyond to compare. As vinegar, it resides in a category unto itself - unique in its subtle, nutty flavors and slight sweetness – the perfect balance between sweet and acid. Of course, it tastes (and acts) completely different than sherry - although each bottle's history still shines through. And, just a touch can add exactly the right amount of "something" that just can’t be achieved using anything else.
Vinegra de Jerez - The Real Schlemiel
Vinegra de Jerez (or sherry vinegar) has been around since sherry making was originally introduced to the Jerez area of Spain by the Phoenicians, in 1100 BC. Since then, Jerez has remained at the center of Spain’s viniculture, with sherry wine at its core. Sherry wine making continued relatively unchanged through the Roman times, until around AD 711, when the Moors conquered Spain, and introduced the concept of distillation. This resulted in the development of fortified wines, like brandies and the current day Sherry.
Although sherry making has spread to other wine-making regions in the US and Europe, there is something special about the soil and climate in the Jerez region of Spain that just can’t be bested. Between the predictable winter rainfall, the dry and hot summer days, the costal winds that bring moisture to the grape vines, and the clay soils that help retain water below the surface as well as reflect sun-light up into the grape vines, no other region can seems to complete. Add to that the distinct grape varietals used (Palomino, Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel) and the time-tested harvest, production, fermentation and aging process, and no other sherry can really compare.
Historically, in the sherry bodegas of Jerez, when the wine accidentally underwent acetic fermentation and became vinegar, it used to be considered a mistake – and the vinegar was often sold very cheaply or given away to the employees. However, in the 1950s, the French chefs discovered sherry vinegar, and the culinary world has not been the same since. Now, sherry wine makers carefully age their vinegars in the same way they do their wine and brandies – in American Oak barrels using the solera system of moving and blending – giving each maker’s vinegar a distinct taste. Although Jerez Vinegar is made by Jerez wine-makers, they are always careful to separate the wine and vinegar barrels, so as not to cross-contaminate their wine barrels with the wrong yeast.
Jerez Wine and Vinagre de Jerez are now DO (Denominacion de Origen) products – which, like Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Champaign wine, canned San Marzano tomatoes, and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, means that the production and sale of true sherry wine and vinegar are controlled by a Consejo Regulador (Regulating Body) and protected under Spanish and EU laws.
What’s in Your Cupboard?
Not surprisingly, Sherry vinegar made from true sherry wine is universally considered some of the finest sherry vinegar in the world. Once you consider the quality of the raw materials, it’s not hard to understand why. By law, Jerez sherry vinegar must be made using Jerez sherry wine, manufactured within the “Jerez triangle”, and age in American Oak for at least six months. A “reserve” must be aged in wood a minimum of 2 years, while a “gran reserve” must be aged in wood a minimum of 10 years. Between the raw materials used to make the vinegar, and the strict control over the fermentation and aging process, the end result is exquisite, full-flavored vinegar that is beyond description.
True sherry vinegar is definitely an essential pantry items. But, consider the words of Peter Kaminski, Culinary Intelligence (Knopf, 2012), “Think before you eat, choose good ingredients, understand how flavor works, and make an effort to cook.” So, next time you reach for that bottle of sherry vinegar from your pantry, take a closer look. You might just be missing out on one of life’s unbeatable pleasures.