Saturday, September 09, 2006

Spanish Olive Oil and Vinegar Tasting, part 2

In my last post, I'd just finished describing the six olive oils we tasted. Now we moved on to the vinegars. Sherry vinegar, to be precise.

(Ignore the scribbles on the labels - these were the sample bottles from the shelves, which - for obvious reasons - are marked.)

We tasted 3 vinegars from Lobato (in the pictures above they all have the word capirete on their labels). One was 8 years old, one was 20 years old, and the last was 50 yrs old! Of course, as we discussed at some length, "years old" is a difficult thing to understand when it comes to sherry vinegars, or sherry for that matter, as they both use the solera system that blends wines or vinegars from different vintages.

Sherry vinegar is kind of interesting. There is a saying in Jerez, from which Sherry hails, that "each cask chooses its on destiny." Some casks of sherry wine age as normal, while others begin to turn to vinegar, and it's not always clear why this happens. Up until 1933, Sherry vinegar wasn't a commercial product. The wine makers always had it, and local cooks would get some from them as well, but no one was producing it for sale until 1933. Sherry vinegar, like Sherry, is made from the Palomino grape, and is aged in American oak barrels.

Unlike when we tasted the olive oils, where you want to breathe deeply and slurp air to maximize the flavors, we were advised to be much more cautious with the vinegars. So we smelled them from a distance while swirling the cups to waft the aromas up to our noses. And we took teeny-tiny sips, or even watered the vinegar down just a bit to be able to appreciate the flavors without the overwhelming acidity.

The 8 year old was the most "vinegary" of the bunch, with a quite high level of acidity. It had a really potent and aggressive nose too, with butterscotch and caramel and a hint of iodine. The 20 yr old vinegar was much more mellow - the nose wasn't harsh at all and had sweet caramely notes. It was smooth and rich and sweet on the tongue too (although you must understand that this is still vinegar we're talking about here, so sweet is relative!). The 50 year old had a really faint nose, and quite a different flavor than we expected. Sherry vinegars are quite different from balsalmic vinegars, which get more and more concentrated and sweeter as they get older. The progression isn't nearly so clear with Sherry vinegars, so this 50 year old vinegar was more acidic and less sweet than the 20 year old. But still not nearly as acidic as the 8 year old, of course! And its flavor was quite fruity.

Having tasted through this "vertical" of Lobate vinegars, we moved onto another producer - Romate - next. Romate is one of the last bodegas in Jerez that still fully locally owned. From them, we tasted a 25 year old standard sherry vinegar, and then a PX vinegar, made from Pedro Ximenex grapes rather than Palomino. The 25 year old was the consensus favorite of all of the standard sherry vinegars. It still smelled quite a bit like sherry, and was really quite sippable! Unlike the Lobate vinegars, which were dominated by dark notes like caramel and butterscotch, this vinegar had lots of high notes to balance the caramel that mostly showed up on a long finish.

The PX vinegar was quite a different beast. Its color was very deep chestnut in comparison to the tan of the others. It's production method is different as well - they take a base of really old vinegar and add to it a small amount of aged sherry, causing a second fermentation cycle as the new sherry turns to vinegar. After that is done, the vinegar is bottled. This complex approach shows through in a complex flavor profile, and the vinegar was another that was pretty "easy" to approach.

I already own a bottle of the 8 year old Sherry vinegar, so I didn't purchase any that night. But I might splurge and get the Romate 25 year old some time - one of the nice things about Sherry vinegar is that even the older bottles aren't very expensive. (With the exception of the PX, which retails for $60 at Zingerman's!)

At this point in the tasting we got to try out the oils and vinegars in some different contexts. First we each got to mix our own vinaigrette to eat with some salad greens (my combination was the Coupage olive oil and the 20 year old Lobate vinegar). Then we tried a small sample of Zingerman's cream of tomato soup alone, and then again with the last minute addition of a spoonful of 25 year old Sherry vinegar. Definitely a flavor enhancer! And we tasted some tomato sliced drizzled with the PX vinegar and sprinkled with sea salt. Again, the major effect was just to enhance the flavors of everything.

The last thing we did was to go back to the olive oils via a blind tasting, to see if we could identify one of the oils we'd tasted in the first go round. One of the attendees was too full to eat another bite, so she poured the mystery oil while the rest of us - including Gauri - waited in the hallway. The mystery oil was the La Amarilla de Ronda and - embarassingly - not a single one of us got it right! Gauri gave the prize (a small can of the LA) to the person who guessed the Coupage, because at least she'd guessed that it was a blend rather than a single varietal.

A very fun evening. These Zingerman's tastings are always a good time and educational too. And at $20 per person, they can be a good bargain, especially if - like me - you take advantage of your 20% off certificate (good that night only) to stock up on oils and vinegars for home!

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