Wine Vinegar: Two Schools of Thought
        Food production usually falls into two categories – traditional, labor-intensive techniques that yield a superior product and modern, mechanized techniques that sacrifice some degree of quality in favor of speed. Red wine vinegar is en excellent example of such a commodity. Expert opinions on quality seem to follow right along with the method chosen for production.


Making Vinegar

        The major goal in making wine vinegar is the same, regardless of the technique chosen. That goal is to convert alcohol into acetic acid and water. The process, called acetic fermentation, takes place when the proper bacteria and oxygen are introduced to wine. The bacteria “eat” the alcohol in the wine and, in “digesting” it, produce vinegar. A good vinegar maker knows how to manipulate and harness this process to produce something delicious.


Traditional Wine Vinegar Making

        The traditional method of making wine vinegar was developed in Orleans, France in the Middle Ages to contend with any fermented wine off-loaded by ships traveling through this port city. The process is simple, but requires diligence and patience. You start with a barrel that is about one-fifth full of your last batch of really good vinegar. Next you add wine to barrel until it is a little more than half full. The air space in the barrel is important to bacteria’s ability to access oxygen during fermentation. The fermentation is a natural process and does not always take the same amount of time. It must be monitored to determine when the vinegar has reached the desired flavor profile. Once fermentation is complete the vinegar may be aged for up six months before it is bottled.

        There are several reasons that the Orleans method makes fruity, aromatic, smooth vinegar. The flavor is enhanced by the blending of old vinegar and new wine. This not only enhances the wine flavor of the vinegar, but it improves consistency. Thriving bacteria in each barrel produce a consistent flavor over many batches and avoid the need for new bacteria to be introduced. The Orleans Method does not require heat. This ensures that the aroma and flavor of the wine is not “cooked off”. The Method also takes advantage of fermentation and aging in oak barrels. Oak imparts it own unique character under fermentation that is difficult to duplicate. Aging in oak also allows the vinegar to develop a flavor that can’t be duplicated with more rapid methods. The Orleans Method can take up to six months.

        The solera method of making vinegar is also a traditional method. Like the Orleans method, it uses natural fermentation in wood barrels and involves mixing good vinegar with new wine. The solera method is different in that fermentation and aging does not occur in one barrel. The system uses racks with many wooden barrels on them in a row. These barrels each have slightly older product in them with new wine on one end and ready vinegar on the other. When vinegar is bottled from the last barrel then a similar amount is moved into it from the next to last barrel. This is repeated until there is room for new wine in the first barrel.  This method makes good vinegar of many types (i.e. balsamic), however the Orleans Method is preferred for red wine vinegar.


Modern Vinegar Making

        Modern vinegar making uses two things not present in a traditional system, namely heat and movement. The modern methods start with a large stainless steel tank. It is filled with wine, bacteria are introduced and the mixture is heated to 80F to 100F. Air is pumped through the tank to excite fermentation. The wine, bacteria and air produce a rapid, forced fermentation. This method can generate 8,000 gallons of vinegar in a day. Wood chips may be added to the tank for flavoring. Although it involves a more complex control system, tanks can also be setup for continuous flow. In this scenario, wine constantly added to a pressurized tank that has been filled with wood chips and other filling material. The necessary bacteria live in the filling material. As the wine flows to the other end of the system it undergoes fermentation and becomes vinegar during its journey. It takes wine about three days to flow through a system like this, but once it is started the system continuously produces vinegar.

        The advantage to the systems described above is that they produce inexpensive vinegar in a short period of time. The long production times of the traditional methods involve more risk that something could go wrong. However, a mass-produced vinegar does not have the aroma or flavor of traditionally-made vinegar. The heat used in the process robs the vinegar of the bouquet that can be contributed by the wine. Likewise, mechanical methods cannot duplicate the flavors made when fermenting with little movement in an oak barrel. A traditionally made vinegar, like other aged products (i.e. scotch), develops a smooth, mellow flavor with unmatched aroma and richness.