If Aesop had written a fable about sweet vinegars, Spanish Vinagre de Jerez would have played the tortoise, and Italy’s aceto balsamico di Modena the hare. The average American diner had never heard of either product in the early 1970s, when an article by New York Times food rite, Craig Claiborne, introduced readers to the joys of balsamic vinegar, setting off a stampede that has yet to abate.
Fueled by the popularity of Italian restaurants, Italy’s efficient promotion of food exports and our national sweet tooth, the dark and syrupy vinegar from Modena quickly evolved form a fad to a trend to a staple of the U.S. diet. Sherry vinegar, in contrast, was virtually invisible in the United States until the mid-1990s, and is still an infrequent guest on the supermarket shelf. There are several reasons for this. Spain banned food exports for decades in response to the famines that accompanied its Civil War. When the government finally created an aggressive export policy, it concentrated on its most abundant products such as citrus fruits, olive oil, olives, and wine.
Spanish producers, without the need for haste, were able to experiment with different blends and methods to produce a wider variety of top quality Sherry vinegars, and at their insistence, in March 2000, the regional body governing Sherry denominations began regulating Sherry vinegars as well.
The result is a versatile product line of guaranteed purity, entering a market already trained to appreciate sweet vinegars, that is increasingly familiar with Spanish wines, and ready to try something new after years of tasting balsamic vinegars. When we first imported Sherry wine vinegar, from Spain, only Spanish customers bought Sherry vinegar. Now we’d say it’s 50-50: the increase has been steady, and all signs point to it, continuing.
Sherry is a corruption of the word Jerez – the town, and anvirons where this distinctive Andalusia vinegar is made. To the west is the Atlantic Ocean and the Guadalquivir river, to the east is the Mediterranean, and to the north are mountains. While the climate is hot and dry, ocean breezes continually bring fresh air, which is an important component in vinegar production. This unique microclimate contributes to the distinctive qualities of the base wines from which Sherry and Sherry vinegar are made. This ancient region not only includes the aptly named Golden Triangle of picturesque sherry-producing towns (Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria, and Sanlucar de Barrameda), but also a wealth of beautiful cities, lively and colorful fishing ports, and stunningly-situated hill villages.
In Sherry country, the traveler will find the most familiar images associated with southern Spain – bullfights, flamenco, golden beaches, fishing boats, remote/white washed towns perched high in the rugged Andalusia mountains, and of course, the wonderful museum-like bodegas of Sherry products. In this region, in addition to the charming cities of sherry’s Golden Triangle, there are such sights as Sevilla, the magical and romantic city of Carmen, the little-known jewel Cadiz (provincial capital), and a score of exceptionally photogenic villages.
Jerez is an elegant city of great Sherry families, legendary horsemen, and gypsy flamenco dynasties. El Puerto de Santa Maria, another great Sherry producing town on the bay of Cadiz, is an exceptional place to eat seafood, and drink fine Sherry. The third town is the historic Sanlucar de Barrameda, at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River, famous for the dry fino-like Manzanilla Sherry and renowned for its sunsets, tapas, seafood – and a chilled bottle of dry sherry. Andalusia is where the habit of sampling tapas was born. The region is also known for its finely honed skill in frying fish (Portuguese and Spanish sailors brought the art from Japan), its supernal fisherman’s stews, and some of the world’s finest shellfish.
Phoenicians introduced grape vines to the Jerez area. Sherry accompanied Columbus to the New World, for Sherry was a fortified wine, and therefore not readily subject to spoilage. Shakespeare often mentioned Sherry in his plays and poetry.
Sherry is known officially as Jerez and Xeres, a meticulously crafted fortified wine. It runs the gamut from sharp/dry to sweet/viscuous. It is made from “Moscatel” (Muscat), Palomino, and Pedro Ximenez grapes, produced exclusively in the region of Andalucia, in/around the town of Jerez. After fermentation, the wine is sampled, classified to quality standards, and fortified with distilled brandy – and added to the top of the solera system, and progressively blended down. The minimum aging for any Sherry is 3 years. Very old sherry (V.O.S.) is older than 20 years, and very old ripe sherry (V.O.R.S.) is older than 30 years. Try a dry fino (Manzanilla), an off-dry variety (sweet bouquet, but dry as an Amontillado) to lastly, a sweet Sherry (La Gitana, which claims to be Seville’s best selling wine)…try a flight at any Portuguese/Spanish restaurant.
The chalky albarzia soil, found only around Jerez, is essential for fine Sherry, because it crusts and traps precious moisture below the ground’s surface to nourish the grapevines. As one saying goes: “el vinagre y el vino andan juntos l mismo camino.”; “vinegar/wine tread the same path together.” This is key. Following in the footsteps of Spain’s modern winemakers, the producers have placed a new value on their vinegars individuality, pushing latent flavors and aromas, experimenting with processes, refining the quality of raw ingredients – and changing our ideas about vinegar in the kitchen.
It took 50 years for the separate worlds of the winemakers (bodegueros) and the specialty vinegar-makers (vinagreros) to come together. With the problem of widespread imitation, however, they formed today’s Sherry vinegar Designation of Origin, tying it at the hips to the Jerez-Xeres-Sherry, and Manzanilla-Sanlucar de Barrameda wine DO.
The classic vinagre de Jerez is made form the Fino Palomino (Sherry wine) grape grown in white (chalky) soil and aged in oak barrels, produces a caramel-colored vinegar with a more balanced sweet/sour taste suited for use on it own. The least expensive of these vinegars are aged for 6 months to 2 years. The finer Reservas are aged for 2 to 10 years, and the elite Gran Reservas may be aged up to 25, 50, or even 75 years.
The most prized varieties come of age through a natural process called Solera, which is unique to the Jerez region. The system consists of rows of 500-liter oak casks piled up in a pyramid, each raw containing Sherry vinegar of similar characteristics, but different ages. The barrels, previously used to store Sherry wine, release their aroma and flavor into the vinegar.
The oldest vinegar is stored in the Solera, the bottom row of barrels. No more than a third of the barrel contest is ever removed form this layer for bottling. This quantity is then replaced with younger vinegar from the Criadera, the row of barrels stored directly above the Solera. The space in the first Criadera is then filled with still younger vinegar from the row above, and so on, until family, the top of the pyramid is filled with new vinegar. The blending of new with older vinegar ensures a consistency of flavor, color, and aroma, year after year.
The maturation process turns the Sherry and Sherry wine vinegar from a simple, pale liquid, to a deeply colored, aromatic, smooth liquid with complex flavors and aromas, with a more balanced sweet and sour taste suitable for use on it’s own.
Sherry vinegar begins with the indigenous Palomino grapes that are used to make the driest sherries, and is harvested early in the season to produce a more acidic wine, after undergoing extensive aging by the Sherry wine solera system. The solera system is the system to mature Sherry vinegar. The bottom row of casks, called the solera, is periodically drawn for bottling/sale. Above this is the first criadera, casks containing vinegar of slightly younger age, from which a small amount is drawn to add to the casks of the solera row whenever they need replenishment. The first criadera is in turn replenished with vinegar from the casks in the row below it, etc.
The older vinegar is said to “teach” the younger vinegars which are blended into it, by developing a uniform, harmonious color, flagrance, and flavor. Sherry vinegar is called the premium vinegar, since it is not merely acetified wine, but a mature, complex vinegar with an incomparable aroma, color, and flavor. Sherry, destined to become Sherry vinegar, is subjected to a second solera process by which the wine is fermented, and aged again, in barrels previously used to make sherry, thus importing to the vinegar some of the wine’s subtle flavors.
Once the grapes are harvested in September, man’s role becomes crucial to sherry production. Sherry, unlike table wines, is exposed to light/air during aging, a process that contributes to its unique taste. The final stage is subjecting the wines to the solera system. Sherry vinegar is typically aged over a period of 6 months, during which time it turns a rich, golden brown. However, like fine wine, vinegar deepens in complexity if allowed to age further.
Sherry can be bone dry, as in pale aperitifs, known as fino/manzanilla – the aristocrats of sherries, made from the native Palomino grape. At the other extreme, sherry can be sweet and mahogany-colored (oloroso) yet sweeter is cream sherry.
The art of vinegar and wine embrace a shared assumption – Jerez’s vinegar should match its wines in quality. As a result, most producers make at least one premier vinegar using the traditional artisanal Jerez method – secondary fermentation inside wooden barrels of oxidized wine covered by a “mother-of-vinegar” or yeasty dark layer of aerobic bacteria, then second, ageing in almost exactly the same way as that used for sherry wines.
Regulations envision three types of vinegar, depending on age:
The first is called simply Vinagre de Jerez, which is aged for at least 6 months, in casks of American oak.
The second type is Vinegre de Jerez Reserva, for which at least 2 years of aging is required.
We have a new third type; white, which is not unlike our white balsamic…void of color. We must not forget that this extraordinary condiment holds within its essence, the memory of the Sherry it once was.
In the old days, Sherry vinegar was formed only by accident, when a crop of new/maturing Sherry was contaminated with acetic acid bacteria. Nowadays, with advanced practices, such as sterile filtration, stringent sanitation of all casks, and the use of cold fermentation techniques, such accidental contamination is a thing of the past. Sherry vinegar producers intentionally introduce desired strains of bacteria into selected casks of Sherry to initiate the transformation of the Sherry into vinegar.
The first pressing of the grapes yields the highest quality must, or yema. The last must, which is called the pronsa, is obtained under heavy pressure, and is usually kept for distillation and often made into vinegar; not unlike olive oil.
The barrels, or boats, are made of American white oak, allowing the vinegar to breathe through its pores, and thereby completing the oxygenation process. Rows, called escales (scales), which consists of the American oat boats (casks), are set-up for each style of vinegar. The oldest, finest sherry is called solera. The other rows are called criaderas (nurseries), which replenish and refresh the oldest row of casks.
How does sherry differ from balsamic? Sherry is unlike its famous cousin from Modena in that it resides exclusively in large oak barrels, used formerly to make the Sherry itself, and spends its maturing life breathing the salt air of the nearby shores to the Atlantic Ocean. Also in contrast to its Italian counterpart, authentic, traditional Sherry wine vinegar is very affordable and accessible to everyday cooking.
As Sherry vinegar gained ground, rather than treating it as a sideline to wine making, our supplier started the Vinegres de Yema company in 1993 with aging cellars in Jerez, and in El Puerto de Santa Maria. Yema’s own labels are present all over the world. It exports a million liters (219,975 gallons) of vinegar a year, its principal customer being France. In the words of Fernando Terry, some of their vinegars are made without acetifying the young wines:
“We allow ourselves the luxury of producing soleras in the old-fashioned way, and we even have our own sacristia (the sancta sanctorum where the finest products are enshrined) in the first cellar we bought. Here we keep butts whose vinegars, given the great age of their solera – more than 100 years – can be drunk straight…they are that delicious.”
Again, there are 2 ways to make Sherry vinegar:
The most common is to provoke the acidification of young wine of the year just after it stopped fermentation, and then age the resulting vinegar in the criadera butts for the period the cellar master deems appropriate, respecting the minimum time of years stipulated by the Regulatory Council.
The second is the “old-fashioned” way when the sherry wine was “picado” (spoiled), and turned to vinegar. These vinegars can be very old, and without doubt, the finest – and can be used as madre – the mother of vinegar – to make younger vinegars better.
Sherry vinegar is a favorite of celebrity chefs such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, and Paul Bocuse, who use it to add depth of flavor to French, Italian, Southwestern, and This-inspired cuisines. Their influence is spreading via the internet, where you can press a button and find recipes for dishes like Corn and Chicken Liver Crepes in a Sherry vinegar-beurre blanc; Bluefin Tuna Cheeks with Turnips in a Sherry vinegar glaze; smoked herring and potato salad with hot Sherry vinegar-bacon dressing, or Venison Medallions in a tomato-mushroom-and-Sherry vinegar broth. There is no limit to Sherry vinegar’s versatility.
On a visit to Paul Bocuse’s kitchen, we noticed that there was a bottle of Jerez vinegar, kept close at hand. The bottle was used frequently, as common/indispensable, as salt. He uses it in salads and pan sauces. He used younger vinegar for marinades. He used the older to achieve exquisite sweet and sour or sauces, to obtain a juice of the consistency of light caramel, to which he added a spoonful of sherry vinegar. Good vinegar, like salt, is a potent flavor enhancer to bring out the true taste of raw ingredients, and like salt, it should be used sparingly.
Sherry vinegar can stand up to spicy, flavorful foods, or can accent lighter dishes. Think of the flavors of Andalusia such as almonds, garlic, hams, olive oil, peppers, and tomatoes. Just as these foods are superb accompanied with a dry/chilled fino sherry, they are greatly enhanced by the smooth/nutty flavors of Sherry vinegar.
Sherry vinegar can be used in many of Spain’s famous dishes, as gazpacho (Andalusia cold soup), ajo blance (cold white soup with grapes), and bienmesabe (marinated fish). Today chefs around the world experiment with its intense, but smooth taste – be it in salad dressing, marinated for fish and meat, drizzled over vegetables and pastas, and/or added to sauces to contribute a delicious bite/zesty flavor and complex aroma…the only limits are the imagination of the cook, and the sophistication of the diners.
We remember that the great film maker Orson Welles, who was in Jerez on several occasions as a guest of the Domecq family, was one of the best promoters of the excellence of Sherry vinegar. At every possible occasion, Welles, who knew a thing or two about fine food, would proclaim its qualities to anybody who cared to listen: ”no salad is good unless it is dressed with vinegar from Jerez, and no vinegar can compare to it.”
OK, if Sherry wine vinegar is the greatest thing to hit our culinary shores since the olive for its flavor, veracity, and expensive cost, why is it not better known?
Most retailers carry some Sherry wine vinegar, but it is usually under-merchandised/underused, treated more as a culinary curiosity, than as a standout in the vinegar lexicon.
True, there is less of it than the vast quantities of red/wine wine vinegars, but that is the point. A retailer needs variety. We do not suggest you supplant all the other vinegars, but let it take its place along-side them, as an interesting/refreshing alternative for everything from salads to the fruit course. The best way for retailers to show off these wondrous vinegars is to use them in prepared foods, as home meal replacements…in the tradition of tapas. However, you do not need to cook traditional Spanish fare in order to enjoy the benefits of Sherry vinegar. You only need to go into the back kitchens of restaurants, and see them accenting simple seafood stews, as part of a house vinaigrette, and/or in pork dishes as part of the reduction sauces. Sherry vinegar never dominates or asserts itself, but rather lays a foundation on which the other flavors can build, or pull the flavors out to their full glory.
Sherry wine vinegars are the unsung heroes of the vinegar world, and their day in the sun, so to speak, is overdue. As a way of introduction, might I suggest a dish of gambas (shrimp) with Sherry wine vinegar? What to go with it? How about a nice chilled glass of fino Sherry wine, or please visit our recipe pages for more ways to enjoy.
Sherry wine vinegar is best stored in dark glass containers, at room temperature. Since this vinegar is more acidic than standard wine vinegar, it is important to use only small quantities in cooking. It has a unique flavor which gives any recipe an element of distinction.