Reflections on Spain
Move Over Balsamic! Discover Sherry Vinegar
Stepping into a sherry bodega is a profound experience. The cavernous room is cool and dark, with columns climbing to the ancient ceiling, a cathedral of wine. Giant black barrels are stacked four high, many scribbled with chalk signatures of bullfighters, royalty and other visiting dignitaries. And the aroma is intoxicating. Over the centuries the winemakers of the sherry triangle have perfected the ‘solera’ system, fine tuning a family of exceptional styles, from bone-dry Manzanilla to nutty Amontillado, to raisin-sweet Pedro Ximénez.
This is also the birthplace of some of the world’s finest vinegars, meticulously barrel aged with a balance of bright acidity and mellowing oak. They are all created using the same ‘solera’ method, mixing a small amount of new vinegar with previous vintages, blending up to 50 years of exceptional vinegars.
Most Americans have not discovered sherry vinegar, opting for balsamic when they want to add something special to their salad or recipe. What they don’t know is that it is likely that a fraud may be lurking in their kitchen cabinet!
Did you know that genuine balsamic vinegar is only produced in two Italian villages: Modena and Reggio Emilia? Authentic balsamic vinegar is made from pressed grape-must from the first stage of winemaking. It is naturally fermented and then stored in barrels for a minimum of 12 years. The finest barrels of balsamic vinegar may have been aged up to 50 years or more. The deep, complex flavor is unrivaled.
If you want genuine balsamic, look for the letters DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin) on the label of your bottle, along with the words ‘di Modena’ or ‘di Reggio Emilia.’ These indicators show the vinegar is from a protected geographical location guaranteed by the Italian government. Authentic balsamic vinegar can cost as much is $200 for a 4-ounce bottle, depending on the age of the vinegar!
So how can your local supermarket offer a 12-ounce bottle of “balsamic vinegar” for $6.99? The secret is that anyone can call their vinegar “balsamic” as long as they don’t claim it is from the protected areas. Many of the mass-market vinegars are little more than ordinary wine vinegar mixed with food coloring and a sugar. The result is an overly sweet mockery of the true balsamic.
Not many of us can afford to invest hundreds of dollars for a bottle of vinegar! So what choice do we have? Not surprisingly this brings us back to the sherry bodegas of Andalucía.
Sherry vinegar has many similarities to authentic balsamic. Aged in barrels for decades, this vinegar has a profound complexity and balanced acidity. Like Modena and Reggio Emilia, sherry vinegar is protected with a DOP Vinagre de Jerez, one of only three protected vinegar styles in the world. But unlike DOP balsamico, sherry vinegar is quite affordable, even for the finest quality.
Years ago, we visited our friends Juan Carlos and his wife Carmen in their Gutiérrez Colosia bodega in El Puerto de Santa María. They brought us to a far corner to see some small casks of sherry vinegar. Juan Carlos opened a tap and poured us a little glass of amber vinegar. It was amazing! So complex, powerful and pungent.
They then showed us the particularly interesting Sherry Vinegar with a touch of Pedro Ximénez wine. Pedro Ximénez is made from grapes which are left to dry in the sun until they almost become raisins. The PX adds a subtle sweetness to the bright acidity of the Palomino sherry vinegar, creating a sweet-and-sour balance that is interesting and complex.
Since our visit years ago, I now use sherry vinegar in most of my cooking. Anointing fresh greens, adding zip to potato salad, bringing new complexity to gravies and sauces, and elevating marinades and soups. And the Pedro Ximénez sherry vinegar has completely replaced balsamic in my pantry.
Whenever I encourage a customer at our store to try our sherry vinegar, I enjoy seeing their surprise and delight as they experience the deep complexity of this unique vinegar. It finds its origins in the ancient solera system of the sherry towns of Andalucía, where time-tested methods and traditions are cherished, and quality is protected. I encourage you to add this amazing vinegar to your kitchen. You will not regret it!
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