Enjoy life like an Istrian

Making of traditional wine vinegar

Making of traditional wine vinegar

The vinegar barrel (pic above) has to be kept apart from wine cellar.

Nowadays, it is easier to buy a bottle of good wine than a bottle of good wine vinegar. Why? Wine avoided the trap to become a purely industrial product and some of the best wines in the world are produced by family-run wineries who grow their own grapes. On the other hand, most of wine vinegar in the world is produced by the food industry using acetifiers – large steel tanks where rapid acetic fermentation of wine takes place. It is a cheap and quick process, ideal for large-scale production of vinegar whose aromas and flavors are miles away from the subtlety and mellowness of the vinegar produced in traditional, slow way.

So, how was wine vinegar produced in ancient times in Istria?

Gabrijelski Brijeg near Pazin, Central Istria

In summer of 2009 I went with my cousin to Gabrijelski Brijeg, a small village settled on a hill near Pazin, to meet Antun Ivaninić. Out of three families currently living there only Tone (Antun’s nickname) was still taking care of his vineyard, and making wine, grappa and vinegar in the same way his grandfather taught him.

Tone is an active over-80s man, a kind and bright person, who enthusiastically showed me his wine cellar, a dark, chilly, well ordered and clean place with so typical smell of barrels and wine. He produces mostly white wine from Istrian Malvasia blended with Brajdenica (or Duranija), another autochtonous variety of Istria that is very rare to find. He uses traditional vinification of white wine – during the yeast fermentation grape skins are left in contact with the juice for maximum five days (aka orange, amber or skin contact wine). Then, after few rackings, the wine is aged in large oak barrels for at least eight months. The wine is not for sale since the quantity is just enough to cover the needs of his family and friends.

Tone in his wine cellar

Aging of wine vinegar in oak barrel

Finally, we came in front of an old 100 l oak barrel. “Here is where the vinegar is aging. It is easy to make it. In fact, making vinegar naturally follows the wine making” he said. And gave me detailed recipe for the traditional wine vinegar from Istria:

First you must know someone that produces white wine but leaves the skins during the fermentation. Not such an easy task. It might be easier to find a winemaker that produces red wine, so the skins are left in the grape juice by default.

In the first few days of grape juice fermentation the surface foam will form. Collect the foam and grape skins floating on the surface, and put everything in a small wood barrel (approximately 50 l) in an upright vertical position until you have a layer that is at least 10 cm thick. Leave the barrel open on top (with the upper surface removed) but cover it with a thin cloth so that the flies cannot enter.

Wait for one to two days until the mixture heats up and you start to feel acid smell (my comment: it is a trick to reproduce the acetic bacterias present naturally on the grape skins so that their quantity is large enough to produce vinegar quickly and efficiently). Pour the wine or the grape juice in the barrel.

After few weeks the vinegar is ready and needs to be transfered in another oak barrel, again in upright vertical position, with a large hole on top covered with cloth. Here it needs to be aged for another six months so that the acidity gets less spiky and aromas become more complex and rich.

At the end, we tasted Tone’s vinegar in pure form and diluted in water. Full of fruit aromas, green apple and lemon can be felt, a little bit of silky wood remains in the mouth and makes it smoother. It is of incredibly soft taste compared to some commercial vinegars you can find in the supermarket. I tried to make a salad at home and it was such a delicacy. A real discovery.

Once again, a big thanks to Tone for sharing the recipe with us.

This article was originally published on Goran’s Manjada blog in September 2009.