T&Co Vineyard in April, May, July

Here’s a quick one — three photos of the T&Co vineyard showing this season’s growth so far in a block of Grenache. This is the vineyard about 100 meters adjacent to where we will plant our Mourvèdre. As you can see it is head-training and spaced similarly to what we will likely do. The canopy has been pruned back and the topsoil has dried out a lot. Not sure how much the water table has dropped at this point given how close it was to the surface in April.

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April

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May

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July

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We’re planting a vineyard and documenting it here

Making wine is the natural extension, and ultimate expression, of the love of wine. Winemaking begins with grape growing, and for the quality-minded winemaker, all the details matter. Luckily we have the opportunity to plan and plant a vineyard in Paso Robles, California, an up-and-coming wine region with huge quality potential that is just beginning to be tapped. We’re doing this in conjunction with T&Co Wines, the winery that my brother and sister-in-law run on the same property. Thanks to Alex and Jenny for their help and support… and their land! Also thanks to Nate W., Lucas P., and all others for their advice. This is definitely a case of learning on the job.

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Future vineyard goes here!

The classical wine regions of Europe have the benefit of a long history of trial-and-error through which they have formed their local traditions. These traditions in turn give growers and winemakers a blueprint for decision making, often handed down generation to generation, so they know more or less what they need to do to optimize their terroir and make quality wines that are unique. In California we don’t have such a long history, so we turn to science to augment our common knowledge.

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One of the many pieces of winery equipment… a drone! Alex is controlling the camera from his remote. Not as essential as the backhoe, but lots of fun.

The concept of terroir can sound pretentious or pseudoscientific, but in reality it is very simple — it’s the idea that a wine can be unique based on the unique location, climate, soils, and human actions that go into making it. In other words, two different wines from different places really shouldn’t taste the same. So, we need to know as much as possible about our raw materials — soils, climate, even wind — so that we can make decisions that will lead to the best possible wine. That part isn’t so simple!

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Step 1… get dirty! Unless you dig a pit, you don’t know what you’re dealing with. Photo: Jonathan Moore Photography

Planting a vineyard is like aiming artillery — most of the important work is done up-front, and once you pull the trigger you have far fewer options for where the shells end up. Or, it’s like curling — you can brush a bit at the ice to affect small changes, but nothing substitutes for the perfect throw at the beginning.

pit locations

Keeping good records is essential since the data is already piling up and we haven’t even chosen a rootstock yet. Here, our soil pit locations.

The sites we will plant are rolling hills in the Adelaida District AVA in western Paso Robles. This area has great quality potential due to wide day-night temperature swings (up to 50 degrees F), mild slopes for draining air, and good sunny exposures. It’s also very dry during the summer, which can be good for quality — especially for red wines (more on this later).

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In this soil pit you can clearly see the distinction between the clay-rich topsoil and the sandstone layer beneath. The topsoil is about 9 inches deep here, at the top of the hill — it’s deeper down the slope. We’re awaiting soil test results from the lab, which will have all the details. As far as we know, the sandstone goes very deep — at least past the likely maximum depth of the future vines, which is a couple meters at maximum in most cases.

The soil at these sites is very important for eventual wine quality, so it’s important that we understand what we’re dealing with in order to make sure we plant the best vines for the site — again, we’re aiming the artillery here, so we need to get it right. It’s also an investment that takes at least three years to begin producing, so the pressure is on.

The first step we can take, then, is to dig soil pits to understand the composition and layering of the soils. We’ll also send soil samples to a lab for testing so we can learn the water holding capacity of the soil, its mineral composition, and other technical details to ensure that the eventual vines will be well suited for the land. While we need to await the lab results to know for sure, it appears we have 1-3 ft. of clay-rich topsoil and loose sandstone underneath.

Here are some more photos for those of you who are curious. Thanks for reading and looking forward to hearing from you!

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Soil samples, all prepped for the lab. Results forthcoming.

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Never miss a “lifestyle opportunity”

A few more photos from the weekend including our vineyard mascot Taco; his namesake dish; my wife Liz (4.5 months pregnant!) in a soil pit; Alex deftly maneuvering a clunky backhoe amongst his Syrah vines;  and some brotherly pit-time. No, we didn’t dig that by hand!

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Inside the University of Bordeaux’s intensive wine tasting course

For those hankering for a deeper understanding of wine — for those who want to peer behind the curtain of hedonism and start to learn what it’s all about — I cannot recommend highly enough the University of Bordeaux’s professional training in sensory analysis. This intensive five-day French-language tasting course teaches how to recognize and understand the aromas and flavors in wine that make it taste how it does. While aimed at professionals, the course is appropriate for anyone passionately invested in wine.

Hedonism is how most of us experience wine. It takes a conscious effort to set aside the thoughts of “I like this” or “I don’t like this” and focus on the components that you can detect. For instance, are there aromas of fruit? Which kind? How acidic is the wine, and what qualities of acidity? Is there a balance and a tension between the perceived sweetness and the acidity, the bitterness, the astringency? You don’t need to pay attention to these things to enjoy wine, but if you do it can elevate your pleasure significantly. And understanding what specifically gives rise to these qualities is an intellectual pursuit that you can add onto the pure, hedonistic pleasure of drinking.

Over the course of a week we tasted around 150 “solutions”, most of which were not wine. These were mostly purified water with molecules added, starting with the basics (vanilla, acetic acid, different sugars) and moving to the more esoteric. Particularly interesting to me was whiskey lactone, also know as oak lactone, which smells of coconut and is present in (obviously) oak. Many of these molecules, which together form the complex aroma and taste of wine, are actually rather disgusting on their own. The molecule abbreviated as “4MMP”, which is a distinctive component of the Sauvignon Blanc grape aroma (which I like), smells to me like terrible body odor, or to many others like cat pee. Everyone has different sensitivities to different smells, so for others 4MMP is very mild and pleasant. It all depends how your brain is wired and how your smell receptors happen to be laid out in your head.

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At 9:30am, an exercise in the effects of different glasses on a wine. Avoid the open-topped style (far right) at all costs — the wine will smell flat compared to the tulip-shaped glasses

After smelling and tasting these molecules several times it becomes easier to detect them in a wine, in turn making it easier to judge quality and typicity and to be able to describe it in a way that people understand. In my daily life I started noticing smells I would have otherwise missed, such as the faint (and for me, revolting) smell of the boxwood shrub that the French call le buis (unsurprisingly to me, 4MMP is a strong component). Our discussion also veered into physiology, with the basics of how the olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste) systems work, and how molecules relate to human perception.

We also smelled and tasted a number of molecules associated with wine “flaws.” These are compounds that arise from problems of fermentation, hygiene, or “elevage” (aging before bottling) that can mask other desirable characteristic of a finished wine. For instance, excessive ethyl acetate can occur in young wines in the presence of oxygen, leaving wines smelling strongly of nail polish remover. This is clearly a fault, since it detracts from the other, more unique and desirable traits of the wine. Other faults are less obvious, and some connoisseurs even disagree about what constitutes a fault. For example, for various reasons many winemakers avoid the use of sulfur dioxide (a common additive used to slow oxidation and prevent micro-organic contamination), which can allow the yeast Brettanomyces to proliferate, resulting in certain “animal” aromas in the wine. In low concentrations many people consider this pleasant, but in high concentrations it is unequivocally a fault.

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The Insitut des Sciences de la Vigne et Du Vin at the University of Bordeaux

It is the university’s oenology (wine science) school, the Institute des Sciences da la Vine et du Vin (ISVV), that puts on this course, and the instructors are all practicing researchers in oenology. Unlike many academics, however, they can communicate their subject adeptly to non-experts. In particular Axel Marchal, the lead instructor, is both an applied scientist and talented teacher. Consequently I found the course to be very illuminating and definitely time well spent.

When it comes to tasting actual wines, ISVV sets the bar high. Their philosophy is that if they are going to train wine scientists who will go on to work in commercial wineries, they need to present a baseline of quality that is as high as possible. Consequently the benchmark wines in each category (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Loire, Alsace, and further abroad) are very high. I won’t name names but we tasted some excellent, top-quality wines, many with 20-35 years of age. One special wine was significantly older than that. The sample wines were mostly French but I think they were well-chosen to illustrate all the points being made.

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention my classmates. They came from diverse backgrounds — winemakers, marketers, buyers, and one amateur —with the common characteristic that they were all passionate about wine. I made friends and connections and cannot wait for my next course at ISVV.

*De la composition du vin à la compréhension de l’analyse sensorielle

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Who drinks international wine?

While reading Paul Lukacs’ highly engaging book Inventing Wine, I came across a paragraph that shed light on a subject about which I have often wondered. Why is it that Paris, a capital of a historically wine-mad nation, has such a shortage of international wine options? Sure, this is changing, especially in the hipper parts of town, but why do Parisians so rarely venture away from their (admittedly diverse and excellent) domestic options?

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There’s a good chance the juices of these Tuscan grapes will end up in a British or American wine glass

I realize that is is quite an American perspective, but I always assumed that people interested in wine would want to branch out and drink the wines of the world. Americans certainly do this — wine enthusiasts and winemakers in California, for instance, happily guzzle tipples from France, Italy, Germany, Austria, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Croatia, even Japan and China. But why is it that foreign wines are almost never present in French restaurants, nor in all but the most esoteric wine shops?

This is not a definitive answer, but Lukacs shows us that it’s not a recent phenomenon. Londoners, just like New Yorkers, have long been shaping tastes with their pounds (or dollars). Here he refers to the 1760s:

It may seem surprising that England, a country whose climate precluded significant viticulture, would play such an important role in the development of modern wine. But English consumers influenced wine styles and wine quality almost as much as winemakers on the Continent. The format of Dodsley’s cellar-record book intimates why. It included sections for Burgundy, Champagne, Claret, Madeira, Port, Rhenish, and Sack, all of which a gentleman presumably would be expected to stock in his cellar. By contrast, in wine-producing countries, people drank native wines almost exclusively. This was true even for the nobility, the members of which certainly could afford whatever they wanted. The French court at Versailles, for example, consumed copious quantities of wine, but virtually all of it was French (and most from northern France at that). By contrast, precisely because domestic wines were virtually nonexistent, a London wine lover, no matter whether a lord or a tradesman, had no patriotic pride when it came to deciding what to buy and drink. As a result, English tastes became extremely wide-ranging. And given the country’s wealth, coupled with its expanding middle-class population, it’s not surprising that virtually all of winemaking Europe vied for the English market’s attention. This was a classic case of demand shaping supply. The English palate wanted new wines in new styles. Winemakers in France, Germany, Portugal, and Spain (and to a lesser degree Italy, the Middle East, and even some of the colonies) were more than happy to oblige.

— Paul Lukacs, Inventing Wine, W. W. Norton & Company, 2012

The tastes of those who demand wine have always been part of the equation of making it. Historically Londoners, New Yorkers, and consumers in countless other places have imported nearly all their wine. Rather than passive bystanders they have been active participants in the evolution of wine. This continues today, stronger then ever, as quality wine options abound and expand like never before. That is the power of the international market, where modern wine lives.

I should mention that I learned about Inventing Wine from the authors of yet another excellent wine book, A Natural History of Wine, Ian Tattersall and Rob Desalle. Respectively an anthropologist and an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, the authors describe the scientific basis of wine and its evolution, which is quite technical but still digestible for a general audience. I recommend it for the scientifically-minded.

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On “typicity” and appellations in French wines

As an American consumer of primarily French wines I always assumed that the French system of classifying wines made a lot of sense. By this I am mainly referring to the Appellation d’Origine Protegée (AOP, formerly AOC) designation, or more broadly the official government-denominated regional origins and the rules that accompany them. However, recently I have realized that this system is more controversial, and potentially damaging to long-term wine quality, than I thought.

First, some context

Sure, the French wine classification system may be a bit intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of it it becomes a reliable predictor of what you can expect from a wine. Champagne (with a capital C) is a good example – everyone knows what to expect: a dry or mostly-dry sparkling wine with a high acid base, grown in a certain area, vinified and processed and bottled in a very specific way, and of course heavily marketed. Most AOPs are much less well-known than Champagne (AOP Cabardes anyone?) but a student of French wines can easily scan a wine list without knowing the individual producers and still understand the contours of what is on offer. Also, with their varying reputations, AOPs provide a generic price guide — if you see Champagne on a wine list for $100 you won’t bat an eye, but a little red AOP Touraine for that price would have you sit straight up in your chair.

Presumably the origin of the AOP system, which dates to the 1930s, was to prevent fraud and establish well-defined categories to protect consumers and wine producers alike. The Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité (INAO), which is a part of the French Ministry of Agriculture, runs the system and sets and enforces the production and marketing standards. Standards for production, such as allowable grape varieties, minimum levels of ripeness at harvest, etc, vary by AOP. I won’t delve into them here, but the truly curious can easily find the details on Wikipedia.

Three label types

Three different styles of labels: on the left, a traditional Burgundy label prominently announcing the AOP (Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits); in the middle a label featuring the producer’s name and varietal; and on the right, an American label focused almost exclusively on the “brand” (winery) and the varietal (Cabernet Sauvignon).

The debate

By their nature, AOPs define marketing categories into which wines fall. This helps consumers identify that they like and what they should consider acceptable prices in each category. The system’s most important theoretical contribution is how it protects quality by carving out ‘exceptional’ geographic areas for winemaking and enforcing standards there that have some roots in tradition.

Tradition, however, is all relative. Burgundy definitely has it — these are some of the oldest vineyards in the world, where the monks of the middle ages labored over centuries to birth a mythic winemaking culture that delivers high quality within a tightly defined category. The terrain is mapped, ranked and subdivided (physically and legally) into hundreds, even thousands, of tiny parcels based on their soil quality, exposure to the sun, and other factors including historical ownership. Largely, wine consumers understand and support this concept.

But what about places like Provence? To paraphrase Dominique Hauvette of Domaine Hauvette in Baux-de-Provence, until the late 19th century the wines of the region were for personal consumption, and what is the point of “protecting” tradition in a region that is so young and should still be evolving?

“Typicity” is a recent concept created by the INAO because they need arguments to defend the appellation system. In my region, wine dates back to 1840: it’s not Bordeaux or Burgundy, two regions with a millennium of winemaking to fall back on. In Provence, vineyards were initially planted for personal consumption. In such, people started making wine here by planting varietals from other regions. It was a question of planting what they wanted to drink.

Nowadays everything needs to have a context and be classified. I think this is foolish because in doing so you’re closing the door on all possible evolution for the future. Wine is where it is today because people took risks, tried new things and things evolved from what we had then to what we have now. In my eyes, the AOC* system is the death of progress and evolution in French winemaking.

– Dominique Hauvette, from an interview with Louis/Dressner Selections, 2011. *Note that since 2012 AOP has replaced AOC, “Appellation d’Origine Controlée”

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Domaine de la Citadelle, in the AOP Côtes du Luberon in Provence, prominently features its AOP designation on its sign and its labels. This is almost a constant in the region, and everywhere in France.

This is the heart of the issue. The AOPs provide some benefits for producers and consumers, and they definitely lift mediocre wines that wouldn’t have any identity without them. But they also encourage uniformity and limit innovation by limiting winemakers’ options. It is cynical, and actually quite French, to assume that without the government’s protection the (new) winemaking tradition of Baux-de-Provence would be overtaken by international-style Cabernet Sauvignon or some other ‘non-native’ expression of wine. The modern consumer is smarter than this, especially the more passionate fine-wine-seekers that are generally buying the more expensive wines.

As evidence, some of the most creative and innovative winemakers of the moment have voluntarily excluded themselves from the AOC/AOP system. They accept the lower generic classification Vin de Table (VdT) in exchange for freedom from rules about which grapes to grow, how to grow and vinify them, and the like. It takes courage for a winemaker to cast aside the AOP denomination and the benefits that come with it in order to do something different. Many do it, however, and the history of the so-called Supertuscans in Italy shows that it can be a commercial success. There, beginning in the 1970s some winemakers decided to make wines that didn’t conform to the Chianti designation rules, so they coined the term Supertuscan to differentiate their products from the low-quality mass-market wines that would share their new, lower designation of vino da tavola.

In France, this can work too. The ‘natural’ wine movement is a natural fit since these producers are already proud of doing things differently, and their wines certainly aren’t conventional. I think many consumers feel the same way. Many innovative producers, such as Xavier Caillard, already work at least partially under the VDF label, even if this means omitting the vintage year or other basic information from their labels so as not to fall afoul of commercial regulations. The wine list at Le 6 Paul Bert in Paris is stuffed full of VdF wines. Buying these wines requires more knowledge about individual producers, but that’s what sommeliers are for after all.

Le 6 Paul Bert

At Le 6 Paul Bert in Paris, Domaine La Bohème — no AOP designation in sight! The back label wan’t any more helpful, but the sommelier (and the Delectable app) explained that it was a light-bodied Gamay from the Auvergne. On the right, the delicious fish to accompany all that wine.

The future

I don’t advocate abolishing, or even changing, the AOP system because I don’t think it is necessary. Winemakers and the market are starting to speak. As in the New World wine industry, consumers are increasingly recognizing the importance of the individual producers of French wine and placing less importance on the appellation (at least for relatively high-end wines). I predict that more and more adventurous producers will opt out of the AOPs and consumers will become increasingly comfortable identifying with producers (or brands) and less reliant on the guidance of the INAO. The AOP system may eventually catch up, or maybe it won’t, but the locals and tourists who flock to Le 6 Paul Bert for its fascinating wine list certainly aren’t waiting for it.

References:

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The enduring appeal of Beaujolais

Few wines, or wine regions, are as much fun as the Beaujolais. The whole purpose of this blog is to make it easier to appreciate wine by stripping away preconceived notions and focusing on what’s in the glass. And since most people don’t do that with Beaujolais, for the lucky few it becomes a bottomless resource of incredibly tasty, refreshing, versatile wines at excellent prices. When I reach for a red, it’s usually Beaujolais — long on quality and value, short on pretension.

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Even with heavier foods like venison, good red Beaujolais is the perfect compliment. At the Auberge de Clochemerle in Vaux-en-Beaujolais, the pairing couldn’t have been better.

The wines

The red wines here are gamay, typically fruity and relatively light-bodied. This makes them great for drinking as an aperitif, or in warmer weather, or with lighter foods. With heavier fare, they complement and don’t distract. The earthier, deeper, more complex wines from the crus – the hillsides with the prime growing locations – can rival Burgundies and other better-known wines in their character and complexity. But, not in their price!

Mont Brouilly

Mont Brouilly’s steep, exposed hillsides provide plenty of sun, a little wind and good drainage for the vines of the Côtes de Brouilly. (photo: Wikipedia)

White wines from the Beaujolais are chardonnay – this is the southern end of Burgundy,

Map of the crus

The 10 crus (Source: Cave Cidis)

after all – and can be dry, flinty and delicious, although most are not. This is starting to change, though, with growers such as Chateau Thivin planting more chardonnay in the calcareous soils in the southern end of the region.

The hills are where we find the 10 crus, or the sub-areas that historically have produced the best wines. Some are very distinctive, like the steep, expo

Source: decanter.com

Source: decanter.com

sed hillsides of Côte de Brouilly. The crus wines are usually earthier and more age-worthy than their siblings from the less distinctive areas of the Beaujolais. But today, in my opinion, the differences between the winemakers and their particular styles are usually more dramatic than the difference in the site-specific characteristics of the various crus.

One of the distinctive characteristics of Beaujolais is carbonic maceration, an extra step in fermentation that produces nice fruity flavors. Whole, uncrushed grapes begin to ferment without exposure to oxygen– I’ll spare you the details but the result is a wine of about 2% alcohol that then undergoes the normal alcoholic fermentation and winemaking process. It’s a small but important difference. Some producers overdo this effect, but a little carbonic touch can be very nice.

The reputation problem

So if the wines are so great, why are the prices low? Like an undervalued stock after a market crash, the Beaujolais continues to suffer from a reputational hangover. Decades of mass-production of generic export wine, typified by the Beaujolais Nouveau craze, ran the region’s reputation into the ground.

Peaking in the 1980s, in the U.S. and elsewhere Beaujolais Nouveau became an incredible commercial success – the only problem being that it was terrible. True, in the Beaujolais there is a tradition of celebrating the harvest (the region’s major economic driver) by drinking fresh wine just after it finishes fermentation. They called this the vin de l’année (the year’s wine), but it wasn’t something anyone would export, or even send to Paris. Still, it was real wine, not the pesticide-laden, characterless plonk pumped out by giant négociants (blender-bottlers) like Georges Duboeuf. Swayed by intensive marketing, the entire U.S. learned to identify Beaujolais with teeth-staining purple swill, slightly sweet and maybe even fizzy – “The red wine you can chill!” I don’t mean to harp, but this industrial-scale profit-taking is something the region’s real winemakers are still working to overcome.

The upside to this – for us consumers at least – is that in most markets people aren’t demanding good Beaujolais enough to drive up the price too much. There are exceptions, of course. The Beaujolais is a major center of natural winemaking, the back-to-basics concept of minimal-intervention winemaking mastered by locals such as Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, and Guy Breton. People fall all over themselves to grab these wines, but for the quality they are still a bargain, topping out at maybe $45 in the U.S. That’s the price of a good Burgundy, but usually not an exceptional one.

Recommendations

Beaujolais really hits its sweet spot in the $20-25 range, where there is a huge range of options in New York such as Jean-Paul Brun, Chateau Thivin, Clos de la Roilette (a delightful guy, by the way), Damien Coquelet, and many others. This is my kind of stuff, inexpensive and delicious! I’d take it over expensive Bordeaux, and even Burgundy, maybe five out of seven nights a week.

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DIY vinegar: my guest post on Ahu Eats

Originally posted on Ahu Eats — thanks Ahu!


DIY Vinegar – A Guest Post by Andrew Yanev from Talking Tannins

I’m very excited today to bring you a guest post from one of my dearest friends, Andrew Yanev of the wine blog Talking Tannins. Buddies since the first day of 2nd grade, Andrew and I go way back, and over the years we’ve shared many culinary experiences from California to New York to France. He probably doesn’t know this, but I credit Andrew for some of my most formative food experiences, including my first ever meal at Gramercy Tavern in 2007 which I will never forget (roasted chicken and the most amazing cheese plate). Andrew is extremely knowledgeable and passionate about wine – in a way that is approachable and focuses simply on wine that tastes amazing – without any of  the other snobbery. Visit and subscribeTalking Tannins to find out more, and keep reading to find out how to make your own vinegar (!!!).


An invitation to post on Ahu Eats is an honor. There are high standards to uphold, and since I write primarily about wine I needed a proven, wine-centric recipe to discuss. The answer is vinegar – a fundamental food, like salt. And like almost everything, it’s better homemade.

Homemade Vinegar from Andrew Yanev of Talking Tannins

What is it?

Vinegar is a solution of acetic acid – usually around 4-7% – and water. Most food vinegar is derived from wine, cider, beer, or other alcoholic liquids. Wine exposed to air will quickly sour and gradually turn to vinegar through the action of acetobacter aceti, a naturally-occuring bacteria that ferments (converts) alcohol to acetic acid. As Harold McGee would say it, “vinegar is alcohol’s fate.”

Winemakers expend a lot of effort to prevent this from happening. But simultaneously, dedicated artisans – some of them winemakers themselves – go out of their way to encourage the same reaction to create delicious vinegars. It’s two sides of the same coin, and a great use for leftover wine, especially if it’s good. Never forget food’s golden rule: garbage in, garbage out.

Homemade Vinegar from Andrew Yanev of Talking Tannins

What’s the point?

In Think Like a Chef, Tom Colicchio advises us to use vinegar as a seasoning to brighten up foods of all types. Certainly it is useful in salad dressings and sauces of all types. And it is essential for making pickles and other preserved foods, to which entire blogs are dedicated. Perhaps my favorite use for high-quality vinegar is pan-fried chicken with vinegar, a French classic as laid out in Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking and The Paris Cookbook.

Vinegar is useful for preserving foods because it inhibits the growth of microbes – as little as 0.1% in a solution can be enough. Ancient Romans added vinegar to water to create a safer, tastier version of water they calledposca. Sometimes sweetened with honey, it was much more pleasant to drink that some of the sketchier water sources they must have had. It was also presumably easier to transport than wine, which spoiled easily and was much more dilute.

How is it made?

Making passable vinegar is simple: inoculate something alcoholic withacetobacter, set it in a warm place and wait. But for our gourmet tastes, we can optimize the process and control the inputs to create a maximally tasty end product.

The most relevant technique for making vinegar is slow fermentation in a crock or in a barrel. Both are fundamentally the same except that with a crock we make a one-off batch, whereas in the barrel we create the vinegar in a barrel and periodically draw off finished vinegar while adding more wine back in to replace the lost volume. This way you can continue the batch indefinitely and the complexity of the vinegar increases. Officially this is known as the Orléans method, after the town in France where it was (and still is) classically used. It has the added benefit of introducing oak flavors to the vinegar, although just as with winemaking this is easy to overdo.

Other processes exist such as solera aging for Sherry vinegar, and of course the incredibly drawn-out, time-intensive production of true Balsamic vinegar, but that is well beyond our scope here. Real Balsamic vinegar is incredibly special, as Paul Bertolli explains in his standard-bearing Cooking by Hand, and can involve decades of aging and slow evaporation through progressively smaller barrels. On a side note, I recently tasted some balsamic-style vinegar made in New Mexico, which was remarkable.

Homemade Vinegar from Andrew Yanev of Talking Tannins

What you’ll need to make vinegar

  • A wide glass jar (3-quart jars can be had at Crate & Barrel for about $11), or a 2-liter barrel if you want to get fancy. These can be purchased from American Barrel for about $50.
  • Mother of vinegar: This is a mass of bacteria and their secretions, suspended in vinegar. It’s the natural-occurring but commercially isolated culture you will use to inoculate your wine and kick-start the fermentation. Amazon has a number of good options, like this one. You could make vinegar without this, but it would be slower, less reliable, and could potentially develop off-flavors and strange odors. That could be a great experiment, but I don’t suggest you start with it. Even better, if you have a friend who makes vinegar you could use a chunk of their active mother to start your batch.
  • Wine: This is my preferred ingredient, although you could also use cider, beer, etc. A fruity, acidic wine is ideal because those will be good characteristics for your finished vinegar. Don’t be extravagant, but don’t skimp – in talking to experience vinegar-makers it is clear that the characteristics of the wine will have a large impact on the flavor of the vinegar. For reference, I used an $18 Nebbiolo from Langhe that I bought at Sherry-Lehman in New York.

Homemade Vinegar from Andrew Yanev of Talking Tannins

The process

The core of the process is very simply: combine the mother with the wine in the crock (or barrel) and place in a warm place to ferment. Acetobacter love warmer temperatures – the low to mid 80s (F) is perfect. The fermentation should take between three to eight weeks depending on how active the mother is. A few notes:

  • Many people prefer to dilute the wine about 50%, or to about 6% alcohol, so that the fermentation proceeds more easily and the final acidity of the vinegar is about 4%. The only downside to this is that it dilutes the phenolic compounds (i.e. the tastiness) in the wine. If you are a patient person I suggest trying it undiluted and then diluting after a couple weeks if it seems the fermentation is “stuck” (not working).
  • Over time a slimy disk – the mother – will form and expand on the surface. This is a good thing. Remember that the acetobacterneed oxygen, so where else would you expect to find them all massed together? At some point the mass may sink and a new one will form. This is also good, and you can discard the sunken mass because it is no longer active.
  • If you use a barrel, it might be better to use it for aging cocktails or something else first so that it does not impart too much oak flavor into your vinegar. Oak is nice but fresh barrels are very strong in flavor. Also, be sure to seal your barrel properly before use (they come with instructions, but essentially you fill it with warm water until the woods expands and the barrel stops leaking).
  • If you use a crock, cover it with a dishcloth to make sure nothing gets in aside from air.
  • Cleanliness of everything you use is, of course, very important.

And the result?

You’ll have to check back in to find out. Better yet, start your own batch and find out for yourself.

Homemade Vinegar from Andrew Yanev of Talking Tannins

DIY Vinegar – A Guest Post by Andrew Yanev from Talking Tannins
Author:
Andrew Yanev
Recipe type:Ingredient
Prep time:5 mins
Total time:5 mins
Homemade vinegar – make your own vinegar with only a few simple ingredients and some patience.
Ingredients
  • A wide glass jar
  • Mother of vinegar (this is a mass of bacteria and their secretions, suspended in vinegar)
  • Wine (you could also use cider, beer, etc)
  • Water
Instructions
  1. Combine the mother with the wine in the crock or barrel, and place in a warm place to ferment (low to mid-80s F is perfect). Adding a little filtered water (maybe 15-25% of the volume of the total mixture) is optional and will make the process go faster.
  2. Check your vinegar over time as it ferments – a slimy disk (the mother) will form and expand on the surface. This is a good thing!
  3. At some point, the mass may sink to the bottom and a new one will form at the surface. Simply discard the sunken mass as it is no longer active.
  4. After 3-8 weeks, the vinegar will be done (just sniff and taste to find out).
  5. Pour it off into bottles and enjoy! Storing in the refrigerator is advised.
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