How we tested
In the test kitchen, when we need a wine vinegar, we’ve generally turned to the red or white varieties. That’s because the third big category of wine vinegar—sherry vinegar—has been far less widely available in supermarkets. Given that it’s a Spanish condiment, we’ve mainly restricted ourselves to calling for it in Spanish recipes like gazpacho, romesco sauce, or Catalan beef stew.
But when we noticed that sherry vinegar is now appearing not just in specialty stores but also in many ordinary supermarkets, we were thrilled. We are big fans of its nutty, oaky, savory flavors and decided it was time to find a favorite that we could use not just in Spanish dishes but in applications across the board.
First, a little background on this interesting ingredient: As its name suggests, sherry vinegar (vinagre de Jerez) starts with sherry wine, a white wine aged in oak barrels and traditionally fortified with brandy, which has been made in southern Spain for centuries. The transformation of sherry into vinegar begins with the same process as red and white wine vinegars—the sherry is first acetified to convert its alcohol to acetic acid. (These days, and for all types of vinegars, this is generally done quickly and cheaply in an acetator that exposes the wine to oxygen, rather than the traditional way of inoculating the wine with an acetic acid “mother” bacteria from an established vinegar and allowing the vinegar to convert slowly in wooden barrels.) But unlike red and white wine vinegars, which are typically stored in stainless-steel tanks until bottling, sherry vinegar then undergoes a process of aging and blending known as a “solera” system. Here barrels of sherry vinegar of different ages are blended over time to create an end product that is a combination of young vinegar and old vinegar—a process that is also used to make the sherry wine.
Furthermore, sherry vinegars that bear the Denominación de Origen Protegida (or DOP) seal must start with drinking-quality sherry made from one of three grape varieties grown in Andalusia and be aged at least 6 months in the solera. Two other DOP classifications exist: Vinagre de Jerez Reserva and Gran Reserva, which must have been aged at least two years and 10 years, respectively. With this information under our belt, we gathered nine products from different sources. Most we purchased from conventional supermarkets, but we also included a few vinegars from specialty stores and online. The majority were Spanish imports bearing the DOP seal; one was a domestically produced outlier from California. Some were aged for just six months, others for decades—including one 30-year vinegar and another vinegar aged for an astonishing 50 years.
Vying for the Top
We began by tasting the vinegars plain to see if we could detect any nuances that might carry through when the vinegars were combined with food. Not only did most deliver the “bright,” “punchy” acidity that we demand from a good vinegar, but most also elicited descriptions more in line with fine wine. Our tasters described them as containing notes of “berries,” “wood,” “smoke,” even “leather.” Only one of the bunch exhibited an “acetone” aroma like nail-polish remover—a flaw caused by an excess of ethyl acetate that forms during the vinegar-making process and which we’ve noticed more extensively in red and white wine vinegars. When we then sampled the brands stirred into gazpacho and in vinaigrette drizzled over salad greens, many of their complex flavors were still evident or helped enhance the fruity tomato flavors of the soup. In the end, we had something positive to say about all of the vinegars and loved six of the nine enough to recommend them.
But the curious thing was that the two vinegars at the very top didn’t embody the characteristics we thought would matter most—they didn’t have a DOP seal and they weren’t the most aged. While we certainly liked the 50-year-old and 30-year-old vinegars, we didn’t find their flavors significantly more complex than the younger vinegars in the lineup, and they came in third and fourth, respectively.
Why might this be so? We did some investigating and discovered that the true age of any sherry vinegar is a complicated matter—and the number listed on the label can be misleading. This number does not represent most of the vinegar in the bottle; it instead represents what the industry calls a “fractional average” of all the vintages that are blended together in varying amounts when the vinegar passes through the solera system. Therefore, vinegar from the most mature batches might make up only a small percentage of what’s in the bottle.
Our conclusion? It’s hard to go wrong with sherry vinegar, since even minimal aging in porous wood encourages evaporation and the concentration of flavor. There’s even scientific evidence to support the idea that sherry vinegar is complex stuff: Studies have identified at least 80 distinct aroma compounds that contribute to its flavor.
Finest of the Fine
So what about the two vinegars that edged out the competition—albeit slightly? These vinegars, from Napa Valley Naturals (which, contrary to the name, sources its vinegar from Spain) and O, were aged 15 and three years respectively, but they share a common feature: Both contain a small amount of sugar per serving (1 and 2 grams per tablespoon), while the others have just a fraction of a gram or none at all. We learned that’s not because manufacturers add sugar but likely because the wines they used were sweeter to begin with. The sherry used to make the O vinegar is also supplemented with apricot wine vinegar, which may have contributed its own sweetness to the vinegar.
That sweet boost balanced these vinegars’ acidity (which was fairly comparable across samples) so that these products brightened both the dressing and the soup with “the right amount of tang.” Either one will add both vibrant acidity and nutty, oaky flavors to any application where we call for wine vinegar, from pan sauces and vinaigrette to soups and stews or roasted vegetables. But since the winner from Napa Valley Naturals costs just $0.43 per ounce and is sold widely in supermarkets, it’ll be our go-to sherry vinegar.
We selected nine sherry vinegars, including supermarket varieties as well as products sold in specialty shops and online. We tasted them plain, in vinaigrette, and in chilled gazpacho. Results were averaged, and products appear in order of preference. Ingredients and nutrition information were obtained from labels and manufacturers.