Most vinegar consumed around the world is made through industrial processes that work fast but generally produce insipid results. Luckily, there is an increasing number of producers making delicious artisanal vinegars.
“It is easy to make fine vinegar, all you need is good wine and patience,” says Mário Sérgio, the winemaker of Quinta das Bageiras in Bairrada. “Fill about two-thirds of an oak barrel with good-quality wine and forget about it for 10 years. Sure enough, the wine will turn into vinegar.” The Romans seem to have followed a similar recipe–the Latin word for vinegar, vinum acer, means sour wine.
We took a bottle of Mário Sérgio’s artisanal vinegar home and were amazed at the difference it made. Its tangy taste transforms salads from good to great. Cooking with this vinegar enhances the food we prepare in ways that are subtle but profound.
In 1418, on All Saints’ Day, Portuguese navigators discovered the island of Porto Santo off the coast of Africa. After more exploration, they realized that Porto Santo is part of a lush subtropical archipelago. The largest island in the archipelago was covered by dense forests so the sailors named it “ilha da Madeira,” the wooded island.
Madeira was planted early in the 15th century with vines from many varietals, including verdelho, sercial, and malvasia. The style of wine making evolved until producers learned to make fortified wines that could survive long sea voyages. The fermentation process is interrupted by adding alcohol so that the yeast does not consume all the grape sugar. The wines are then aged for at least a decade in bottles or wood barrels. Madeira producers discovered that the wine stored in barrels that returned from sea voyages in hot climates had improved in quality. So, they started refining some of their wines by exposing them to heat.
In the 17th and 18th century, Madeira wine became a major export. From East to West, aristocrats demanded this wine full of complexity and allure.
Six centuries after Madeira was discovered, we can taste a remarkable vinegar made with Madeira wine by a great olive-oil producer called Gallo. The acidity and sweetness are perfectly balanced to create a seductive vinegar like no other. Try it while you can, for soon gourmets from East to West will demand their salads dressed with this star vinegar.