Foods From Spain News - April 2007
Sweet Vinegars From Spain
Singular grapes and a unique aging process result in unique vinegar that stands out in the American kitchen
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 writer 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 from 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 fruit, wine, olives and olive oil.
But just as in Aesop’s fable, this tale of two vinegars may have a surprise ending. Like the swift rabbit, balsamic vinegar has become a victim of its own early success. As demand for balsamic outstripped supply, many Italian producers began adulterating their product with sugar to hasten the maturation process.
Moreover, sales of balsamic took off so rapidly that the average American consumer never learned how to use it properly, notes Darrell Corti of Corti Brothers in Sacramento, California, a leading specialty food store. “True balsamic is a very intense, concentrated vinegar that is designed to be sprinkled, drop by drop, over hard cheese or grilled vegetables, or combined with other vinegars,” Corti says. “People in this country use it by the cupful in salad dressings, which is like putting maple syrup over lettuce.”
Spanish producers, in contrast, took the opposite route. Without the need for haste, they were able to experiment with different blends and methods to produce a wider variety of top quality Sherry vinegars. And as their Italian counterparts blazed the trail in sweet vinegar imports, the Spanish learned from their mistakes. At their insistence, in March 2000 the regional body governing Sherry wine 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 nothing but balsamic vinegars. And while imports of Sherry vinegar are unlikely to overtake balsamic any time soon, wholesalers and distributors agree that increasing numbers of Americans are buying Sherry vinegar. “When we opened in 1966, only Spanish customers bought Sherry vinegar,” says Don Harris of La Tienda.com, the largest online supplier of Spanish imports in the United States. “Now I’d say it’s 50-50. The increase has been steady, and all signs point to it continuing.”
Just as authentic balsamic is native to Modena, Italy, true Sherry vinegar comes from a single town: Sanlucar de Barrameda in Andalucía, on the southern Atlantic coast of Spain. And like its Italian counterpart, vinagre de Jerez is the end result of a unique aging process that produces a flavor like no other. But here the similarities end. True balsamico starts with red wine, and must be aged at least 12 years in barrels of different woods such as mulberry, chestnut, juniper, acacia or cherry. The result is a deep purple syrup of such sweet intensity that it is designed to be used primarily in combination with other, more tart vinegars.
The classic vinagre de Jerez is made from the Fino Palomino (Sherry wine) grape grown in white (chalky) soil and aged in oak barrels, producing a caramel-colored vinegar with a more balanced sweet and sour taste suited for use on its own. The least expensive of these vinegars are aged for six months to 2 years. The finer Reservas are aged for two 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. As the Spanish exporter Med International describes it, the system consists of rows of 500-liter oak casks piled up in a pyramid, each row 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 content is ever removed from 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 finally, the top of the pyramid is filled with new vinegar. The blending of new Vinum Acre PX by Anima Aurea, www.animaaurea.com with older vinegars ensures a consistency of flavor, color and aroma, year after year.
A second, sweeter type of Sherry vinegar began entering the United States in 1999 as a smoother alternative to balsamics. Called Vinagre de Jerez PX, it blends the traditional vinegar with wine made from the sweet Pedro Ximénez grapes of Málaga, and can be used alone as well as in combination with other vinegars. An even newer import, an ultra-sweet Moscatel vinegar, is made from white Muscat grapes.
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 Thai-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 Crêpes 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.
“Unlike balsamics, there is no limit to Sherry vinegar’s versatility,” says Steven Jenkins, buyer for the New York Citybased Fairway specialty food stores. “The traditional version is terrific in soups and stews, in sauces and marinades, on fish and chicken, or mixed with olive oil over green salads. The PX is great over fruit salads, hard cheeses or combined with walnut oil over a salad of endive, walnuts and blue cheese.”
While Sherry vinegar is still mainly available only through specialty food stores, the range of producers, prices and and flavors is expansive. Here is a sampling:
A. Columela 50-Year Sherry Vinegar is obtained from the Jerez production zone and aged in barrels of American oak following the traditional system of Soleras and Criaderas. The Soleras that gave birth to this product were established in 1946.
B. Cepa Vieja, the vinegar favored by Mario Batali, is made from a 40-yearold mother vinegar. It has a mellow, rich sherry flavor and mild acidity that won’t overpower delicate flavors. 250 milliliters (8.3 oz) for $18.
C. Las Llaves Sherry Vinegar. Don Harris of La Tienda.com counts this dry and tangy vinegar as his family’s favorite. Its name, which translates as “The Keys,” refers to the Spanish tradition of keeping one’s best wines and vinegars in a small cellar under lock and key. With a relatively high acidity of 7%, a little goes a long way. $19.95 for 22.5 oz.
D. El Majuelo PX Sweet Sherry Vinegar. A superior, natural alternative to condimentgrade balsamic, and at $12.95 for 8.5 oz, a good value.
E. Vinum Acre Anima Aurea. This exquisitely balanced PX is my family’s favorite. It comes in an elegant bottle with cap and pour spout, packaged in a gift box. $12.95 for 8.5 oz.
Molly Gordy is an award-winning journalist, translator and college professor who dreams of moving to Spain. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Vinegars Pictured to the Right are:
1. & 2. Sotaroni PX Gran Reserva 25 years and Moscatel Reserva 12 years,
3. Sotaroni PX 12 years,
4. Ferianes PX,
5. Don Millan PX,
6. El Majuelo PX,
7. 8. & 9. Agustí Torelló (white cava), Agredolç (red wine), Hacienda Bracamonte(PX),
10. L’Estornell (palomino fino, Reserva) Solera established in 1940,
11. Cepa Vieja Reserva,
12. & 13. Vindaro (Rioja wine),
14. Cerro de los Angeles Reserva,