Why Turning Great Wine Into Vinegar Isn’t A Bad Idea

by | May 23, 2012

Tom Alexander, Kimberley Owner and Vinegar Artisan

I get a lot of emails from people pitching various food and weight loss products. It’s annoying to say the least, and if I even bother to respond to the inquiries my answer is almost always “no.” Summer Tomato is supposed to be an information resource, not a shopping mall.

That’s why my first reaction to getting some samples from a local vinegar company was negative. I liked my vinegar just fine and I didn’t want to get roped into doing a promotion or sales pitch. But my friend Allison Boomer (who actually has introduced me to awesome products in the past) was so insistent that Kimberley Wine Vinegars were amazing that I broke down and let them send me some. Turns out Allison was right.

Once I got a taste of the three amazing wine-based vinegars from Kimberley I became curious about why they were so much more complex and less harsh than most of vinegars I’ve tried. After she answered a few of my questions I realized that Allison is a huge vinegar geek, and I asked her if she’d be willing to enlighten us all on the differences between artisan and industrial vinegars so that we can be more informed shoppers and better cooks.

Allison Boomer, Founder of Eco-Conscious Food Marketing, specializes in promoting the artisanal food business community. She partners with people who share her passion for handcrafted food and is committed to educating consumers about the value of authentic, traditional edibles.

Orleans-Process Vinegar: Why Turning Great Wine Into Vinegar Isn’t A Bad Idea

by Allison Boomer

Having owned a specialty food store for ten years, I’ve tasted dozens of vinegars from around the world. I also developed new vinegar blends for a venerable French vinegar company, and currently work for Kimberley Wine Vinegars in California. With abundant fresh salad greens and garden vegetables appearing at markets, it’s an ideal time to discover why handcrafted vinegar is light years better than the newer industrially produced kinds.

In ancient times vinegar occurred naturally, especially in mild climates, when sugar-laden fluids like wine began to ferment. Yeast transforms the sugars in the liquid into alcohol and as it sits, acetates in the air start to work. Ultimately, bacteria consume the alcohol and leave acetic acid (vinegar) behind.

In its early days vinegar was used to not only season food, but also to quench thirst (diluted with water), preserve meat, vegetables and fruit, treat wounds and inflammation, and for chest and stomach complaints. In the Middle Ages vinegar was an important trading commodity.

Vinegar making during this time, however, wasn’t exactly predictable or foolproof, and was quite difficult to make. Often times unpleasant smells were produced or the liquid would become moldy.

What saved the day for the vinegar “industry” was the discovery that vinegar could be made in wooden barrels. This led to the development of the Orleans process of vinegar making, named after the French town of Orleans. It was at Orleans on the Loire River, an important inland shipping route, that wines becoming “piques” (beginning to bite or sour) were unloaded from boats to be delivered to local vinegar producers.

In the Orleans process wine is slowly and naturally aged in oak barrels for one to three months without heat, until a mass of bacteria known as the “mother” forms on the surface. The fermentation process is then allowed to continue (six months to one year) until all the alcohol has been converted to acetic acid. Old-fashioned wood barrels contain natural oxidants that improve the bouquet and flavor of the vinegar. The Orleans process preserves the vinegar’s distinct wine aroma and flavor because it involves no heat, which destroys the delicate perfumes and minerals of the wine.

In contrast, industrially processed vinegar is heat pasteurized and made in large-capacity stainless-steel tanks in which a giant spindle agitates the liquid, aerating it for a speedy fermentation period of around 24 hours. The resulting vinegar may be aged for an additional few months, but in tanks holding several thousand gallons, rather than in wood barrels holding fifty gallons in the traditional way.

Orleans vinegar artisans received official recognition for the quality of their work through royal patents. These patents clearly defined the production conditions required to use the name “Orleans process,” thereby suppressing poor quality vinegars from using the designation.

The Orleans process requires the following three criteria:

1. Selection of excellent wines based on grapes that have a delicate and subtle bouquet. The quality of the vinegar depends on the quality of the wine—the best tasting vinegars come from great wines.

2. A natural transformation of the wine into vinegar. Barrels are partially filled with wine and their appropriate bacteria, kept at a constant temperature in complete darkness, and provided with proper air flow for fermentation to take place (thus avoiding the bitterness found in some vinegar).

3. Traditional aging. Vinegar is left to mature or age for a minimum of six months to one year in cellars before it is put on the market.

Kimberley Wine Vinegars was the first American company to handcraft Orleans process vinegar using California wines. Established in San Francisco in 1975, Kimberley does not add preservatives to the vinegar, nor is it pasteurized—a common practice that increases shelf life but degrades subtle taste characteristics.

Like old-world olive oil artisans, today’s artisanal vinegar makers know the best vinegar depends on the quality of the raw ingredients and the processing methods. Achieving the ideal balance of fruit taste, oak flavor and pleasant acidity is the craft of fine vinegar making.

You can learn more about Kimberley Wine Vinegars on their website.

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