Google sherry vinegar and you'll find that the top results, after its Wikipedia entry, are guides for ingredients to use as a substitute for it in recipes. That's a shame, because sherry vinegar has no true substitute. It's also much easier to find these days, and has qualities that other placeholders simply lack. I'd even argue that it's the one vinegar to always have on hand.
Sherry vinegar is loaded with complex, nutty flavors you won't find in other vinegars. And its 80 distinct aromatic compounds translate into more interesting salad dressings and crazy-good accents in soups and pan sauces that apple cider or rice vinegar could never hope to imitate.
Sure, balsamic vinegar can of course be very, very good. But it also fetches prices as high as $200 an ounce. Even the not-so-great stuff, including the fake balsamic that lines many grocery store shelves, can still set you back. On the other hand, you can get an eight-ounce bottle of solid sherry vinegar for $10 or less, and many excellent bottles don't cost much more.
How It's Made
It begins with sherry, that marvelously complex and affordable wine with blasts of almonds, sea salt, or caramel. But instead of the wine getting fortified, it's fermented further, with bacteria converting alcohol into acetic acid.
Like sherry, sherry vinegar is protected by Denominación de Origen, which recognizes nine sherry-producing municipalities in the southwestern Spanish province of Cádiz that collectively form the so-called Jerez triangle. Historically, in this region, vinegar was looked down upon as a byproduct of spoiled or discarded wines, stored separately in smaller bodegas (so as not to let their bacterial cultures cross-contaminate). But over the last few decades, more and more producers have turned their attention to vinegars, employing the same aging and maturation technique that's used for wine—the solera system—to bring out the vinegar's full potential.
The wine then spends a minimum of six months aging and fermenting into vinegar with bacteria in oak barrels. As it continues to ferment, it soaks up all those aged wood flavors and aromas, and some sherry vinegars are matured over the course of decades or generations for bolder, more oaky complexions.
How does the solera work? After an initial alcoholic fermentation, wine destined to become vinegar is treated with a mother culture from an older batch, which rests on top, slowly facilitating the conversion of alcohol into vinegar. Come bottling time, a producer will take vinegar from their most mature barrels without draining them completely. That empty space will then be filled with younger vinegar from another barrel, and then that barrel may then be filled with even younger liquid, too. This process repeats year after year, so each bottle contains small amounts of very mature vinegar that mingles with newer vintages.
The result: incredible complexity, a mix of aged depth and bright acidity in every bottle.
Sherry vinegar is governed by an aging classification system. Anything labeled vinagre de Jerez must be aged for a minimum of six months. A reserva is aged for at least two years, while gran reservas spend least 10 years in wood. The older a vinegar is, the more it takes on the flavors of the barrel. Some of the water also evaporates out through the wood over time, concentrating the flavors further and driving up the acidity. The label on a sherry vinegar bottle will usually include which age class it belongs to, as well as the average age (in years) of the vintages.
Know Your Sherry Vinegars
Age is only one way to classify sherry vinegar. Just as important to keep in mind is the grapes that go into making it. Jerez is known for three chief grapes: crisp palomino, raisiny Pedro Ximenez, and honey-sweet moscatel. Each has their own distinctive qualities, producing vinegars that vary in color, consistency, and taste. Here's an overview of what to expect with each.
Light and Sharp: Palomino
Most bottles simply labeled "sherry vinegar" or "vinagre de Jerez" are made with palomino grapes. Generally speaking, these are drier vinegars with wood or hay notes. The Denominación de Origen requires them to have a minimum of 7% acidity (8% for gran reservas), placing them well above most other household vinegars. This means that their tartness is bright, straight, and to the point—good all-purpose sharp vinegars.
Capirete is a fine workhorse vinegar that's easy to find in specialty stores and online. But Angelica Intriago, co-owner of Spanish food mecca Despaña recommends Gran Gusto from Bodega Paez Morilla for its noticeable oakiness and nut accents. It draws clear parallels to a dark-but-dry palo cortado or oloroso sherry, which often taste like butter and caramel thanks to their oxidizing exposure to air. And at $6.75 for a 375 mL bottle, it's a steal.
A few producers have also begun to market vinegars made in the same fashion as drinking sherries. Montegrato is one of the major players in this field. Their fino vinegar, for example, is made in the same style as its namesake palomino drinking sherry (minus the fortifying brandy), with minimal oxidation. Like a good rice wine vinegar, the fino has a mellow brightness that is at once gentle in its approach yet quite direct once the acidity fully hits you, ripe with floral, pear-like flavors. Intriago (who says that she loves using the fino in the Spanish tapas classic gambas al ajillo) describes it as a vinegar that can "play nice and add a touch of finesse to recipes as a secret touch. You can't really pinpoint unless you know that it is in there."
Dark and Intense: Pedro Ximenez
Pedro Ximenez grapes are pale white, but you'd never guess it from the dark, intense sherries and vinegars made from them. The grapes are typically left to dry in the sun after harvest, which concentrates their sugars, giving way to spice, leather, or fig flavors.
As a drinking sherry, Pedro Ximenez is jammy and sweet, best served as a dessert wine. Turn it into a vinegar, however, and that you get acidity (around 6%) to intermingle with that sweetness. All those compact flavors make for an intense product that, on its own, has a near-disorienting effect on the palate. But slide it into a gazpacho, or use it to glaze meats on the grill, and it all starts to make sense. It has sturdiness that will deepen the flavor of whatever it touches, while adding both enough acidity and sweetness for a fine balance.
Montegrato's 16-Year Pedro Ximenez vinegar is a great introduction to the style. It tiptoes between sweet, savory, and sour, practically shifting along with your mood. On one tasting, it reminded me first of Coca Cola, and on others I got hints of Worcestershire sauce and stewed tomatoes. If I had to point to one representative bottle that encapsulates sherry vinegar's complexity, this would be it.
Sweet and Fruity: Moscatel
Moscatel grapes and wine (also known as Muscat of Alexandria) are distinguished by their floral, perfumed aromas, full of dewy fruit. As vinegars, they practically defy typecasting—you could call them sweet, smooth, and rich. Although a little bit harder to find in stores, moscatel vinegar is worth seeking out and keeping on hand as a go-to for salad dressing or drizzling over seafood and baked fruit desserts. Bodega Paez Morilla's moscatel vinegar is a great example, fragrant with almond and peach notes that gently roll across the tongue.
Not Just for Spanish Food
As all sherry vinegar hails from a small corner of the Iberian peninsula, it's easy to think of the stuff as something of a regional curiosity—one of those idiosyncratic ingredients that never escapes its home cuisine. I'd bet that on our side of the Atlantic, most people who are even familiar with it at all would be hard-pressed to name a use other than gazpacho.
But in the same way that drinking sherries have been recognized more and more for their ability to pair up with a wide range of cuisines (see: Chinese), sherry vinegars deserve consideration outside their hometown roots.
Their most dominant flavors—caramel, nuts, raisins, and so on—work beautifully with soy sauce and ginger (check out these Japanese-style tsukune meatballs for one prime example). And they add a welcome fresh, bright kick to hearty stews and dishes larded by bacon fat.
With all these uses, you shouldn't have much trouble working through a bottle quickly. But don't worry about taking your time with an open bottle. Unlike sherry—and any other wine—sherry vinegar will last years once opened when stored in a cool, dark place. Consider it your new old faithful.